Critics’ Picks

View of “Who's Afraid of Jasper Johns?”

New York

“Who's Afraid of Jasper Johns?”

Tony Shafrazi Gallery
544 West 26th Street
May 9–July 12

For the 2006 Whitney Biennial, artist Urs Fischer knocked large holes in two gallery walls; last year, he tore through the floor and dug deep into the earth beneath Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. The latter seemed an endgame gesture in this brief trajectory, but here he has raised the stakes by punching through the normally invisible wall sealing off a venue’s past from its present. (Michael Asher’s recent installation at the Santa Monica Museum of Art is another example of this potentially fruitful trend.) The Swiss artist commissioned the photographer Ellen Page Wilson to document Tony Shafrazi’s previous group show—artworks, walls, air ducts, security guards—then created seamless, to-scale trompe l’oeil wallpaper from the images. This evidential trace of the gallery’s last exhibition is now the ground against which nearly two dozen artworks, selected by Fischer and Brown and which at some point were in Shafrazi’s inventory, cagily rest.

Walking through the show is an uncanny delight: Like an autofocus lens unable to locate its subject, one’s mind and eyes strive to unscramble the artworks actually present from those that are verisimilar copies. A 1943 portrait by Francis Picabia is centered on the image of a Donald Baechler painting of a dandy and some beach balls; on an adjacent wall, Malcolm Morley’s Age of Catastrophe, 1976, a large painting, seems planted in the middle of an even larger Keith Haring. Richard Prince’s photograph Spiritual America, 1983, and Sue Williams’s painting Dessert, 1990, each partially obscure the image of a Basquiat canvas. Matters are further complicated. The Lawrence Weiner wall text and the wallpaper Basquiat beneath it seem to keep switching places. Lily van der Stokker’s two brightly colored wall paintings squeeze into the interstitial space between the wallpaper and the other artworks, in the process acquiring a conceptual grounding that belies their whimsy.

While the included artworks, in a white cube, would make for an odd group show, in this bizarro world harmonies arise. (Who would’ve thought a large late-1970s sculpture by Robert Morris, with its ungainly pipes and warped planes of plastic, mirror, and copper, was redeemable for today’s tastes?) A surge of affinities chastens typical attempts at neat categorization; nothing stays in its place. As one pads across Rudolf Stingel’s carpet installation, the rush of Rob Pruitt’s corny homemade waterfall tickles the ears like so much chatter between these clashing artworks. The recognition dawns that Fischer and Brown have concocted a surprisingly subtle meditation on the many lives of artworks, and its presentation in a secondary-market gallery owned by a man once arrested for defiling Picasso’s Guernica—as depicted on the exhibition’s announcement poster—raises similar questions about the many lives of those of us who engage with them. That such canny, simple gestures seem so refreshing is a gentle rebuke to the ossified conventions to which we all unthinkingly subscribe.