The Dark Secrets of Jasper Johns

An exhibition at Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, examines Johns’s recent paintings and how the artist’s intentions remain steadfastly encrypted

Death is the theme, if not always the mood, at ‘Jasper Johns: Recent Paintings and Works on Paper’, on view at Matthew Marks in New York. Grouped roughly in four sections, these works, all completed since 2012 and many since 2014, are new – a startling descriptor for an artist who has been canonical for longer than most of his spectators have been alive. Johns is the last survivor of the generation of gay white men that included John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly and (depending on who you ask) Andy Warhol. He is nearly 90. ‘New’ is also incongruous given his habit of repeating previous motifs, as do the works on view here. Even his earliest extant pieces (Johns famously destroyed everything he made before 1954) troubled newness, since flags, targets and alphabets heralded the return of the readymade, whose scandal consisted precisely in its rejection of originality.

Here the goose-chase for beginnings terminates in the finality of mortality: death’s head leers out from an untitled 2018 series of paintings and prints, a memento of paintings past and a signifier of what’s sure to come. The skull appears within the artist’s own silhouette – the composition is from ‘The Seasons’ series (1987) – and, yet, with porkpie hat and dapper cane, the skeletal smile is not entirely mirthless. This series is frequently funny, in fact. One etching – Untitled (2018) – is printed on ancient-looking Egyptian papyrus, as if to joke: ‘Would you believe I’m this old?’ A wall of untitled test-pieces (all 2018) belies its tonal grisaille to make a number of jokes that are quite blue: a skull is held suggestively over the figure’s crotch, for example, or positioned on the ground directly beneath the crotch in a piece whose aqueous inkspatters recall the micturated traces in Warhol’s Oxidation Painting (1978). He’s not even dead yet, and already Johns is pissing on his own grave.

Jasper Johns, Untitled, 2018, oil on canvas, 129 × 87 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York/Los Angeles

This show is dark, to be sure, and not always in humorous ways. A centre gallery is ringed with works based on a photograph taken in Vietnam by LIFE photographer Larry Burrows. Entitled Farley Breaks Down, the 1965 photo shows Lance Cpl. John Farley grieving after the helicopter mission he had led ended in the deaths of several comrades. Farley was just 21 years old. In keeping with his traditional process – ‘take an object / do something to it / do something else to it’ – Johns reworks the image in ink and encaustic on paper or plastic, often abstracting Farley’s body beyond recognition, a chillingly formalist play on ‘breaking down’. The two paintings on this theme – both Untitled (2018) – include cartoonish US dollar bills abutting comic strips and a newspaper article about lobbyists. Is this a protest of violence waged in the name of corrupt capitalism? Do its distortions constitute a critique of current lapses in historical memory? It’s possible, but any such messaging would be profoundly unusual for Johns. Ever since Flag (1954), his works have offered just enough suggestion to bait viewers into political or biographical readings that turn out, upon further examination, to fall frustratingly short of convincing. Indeed, his ‘Regrets’ (2014) series, also on view, submits a different photograph, this one of Lucian Freud, to similar operations without any hint of commitment.

Jasper Johns, Untitled, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 52 × 75 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York/Los Angeles

With slightly annoying fidelity, Johns has managed to accumulate nearly 70 years of practice while remaining steadfastly encrypted – and deliberately so. His works chatter without really saying what we want them to. Stymied desire, a significant experience of his generation, is also major theme of his oeuvre. The search for confession or critique, like the quest for origins, must face the grinning skull atop the artist’s shadow, which discloses no secrets save the only certain one.

‘Jasper Johns: Recent Paintings and Works on Paper’ was on view at Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, from 9 February until 6 April 2019.

Main image: Jasper Johns, Untitled (detail), 2016, oil on canvas, 1.02 × 1.02 m. Courtesy: the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York/Los Angeles

Jack McGrath is an art historian based in New York, USA. He teaches on the MFA programme at Columbia University. 

Issue 203

First published in Issue 203

May 2019

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