Critics’ Picks

Jasper Johns, Flag on Orange Field, 1957, fluorescent paint, watercolor, pastel, graphite on paper, 10 1/2 x 7 3/4".


Jasper Johns

Menil Drawing Institute
1533 Sul Ross Street
November 3–January 27

This tight survey of drawings by Jasper Johns, spanning from 1954 to 2016, handily overturns several longstanding presumptions about the relation of drawing to an artist’s broader practice. Curated by David Breslin with the assistance of Kelly Montana, the exhibition inaugurates the new Johnston Marklee designed Menil Drawing Institute and coincides with the publication of a six-volume catalogue raisonné of Johns’s drawings. Both are testaments to the significance of Johns’s works on paper, as much of his iconic subject matter—flags, targets, letters, numbers—is lifted from a two-dimensional, graphic world.

We learn, for example, that the artist’s drawing practice is not limited to preparatory processes. Many works with imagery recognizable from well-known paintings and sculptures—such as Flag on Orange Field, 1957, whose vivid tangerine textural background is built from paint, watercolor, graphite, and pastel—came after their more monumental counterparts. Furthermore, while traditional definitions of drawing associate the medium with the operation of delineation, Johns seems more interested in the areas that fall between clearly articulated lines. For works such as Periscope, 1977, he chose supports (plastic) and media (ink, watercolor, graphite) that maintain a material antagonism, obscuring the rendered subject matter more than revealing it. These dynamics extend to a lovely group of body prints from the 1960s and ’70s made with charcoal, graphite, and oil on drafting paper, which make the case for Johns’s interest in an erotics of surface that dates to his encaustic paintings and cast plaster works from the ’50s. The exhibition serves as a kind of manifesto for the new institute, whose elevation of an expansive approach to drawing provides a satisfying antidote to the contemporary art world’s lust for the spectacular.