PRINT January 2022


View of “Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror,” 2021–22, Philadelphia Museum of Art. Wall, from left: Two Flags, 1962;  Corpse and Mirror II, 1974–75; Two Maps, 1989. Foreground: Painted Bronze, 1960. Photo: Joseph Hu. © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

I CAME OUT OF “Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror” at the Whitney, not yet having seen the Philadelphia part of the show, feeling . . . what? Calm? Clear? Alive to the particulars of visual experience? Those were the words I jotted down. But they didn’t quite belong to me. Asked by a Danish reporter in 1969 about the state he hoped to induce in his viewers, Johns said, “When something is new to us, we treat it as an experience. We feel that our senses are awake and clear. We are alive.” I read those words years ago in the catalogue of the 1996 Johns retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.1 Maybe they stuck with me, maybe not. In any case, my feelings in the present were real, but what had occasioned them—the works in the show? The work of the show? Both?

That is never easy to tease apart, but I suspect that my sense of clarity, which only grew after I saw the presentation in Philadelphia, was partly the result of experiencing Johns’s art as a set of oppositions. (Go ahead, call me a structuralist.) And the governing one, the metaterm, was the split nature of the exhibition itself.

The double-venue idea brought out something essential, if hardly hidden, in Johns’s work: namely, his penchant for pairs of all kinds—near repetitions, mirror reversals, other symmetrical inversions, monochrome-polychrome pairs, optical illusions that toggle back and forth, tracings, casts, imprints, etc.

There has already been plenty of criticism of this device, to use a word that Johns enshrined in several early titles: It makes unreasonable demands of time and travel on the visitor, it allows the curators to get away with a too-big show, it is East Coast–centric, etc. So why do it? Sometimes two curators in different cities have the same thought at the same time. My guess is that’s what happened here, and indeed, there was good reason for Carlos Basualdo and Scott Rothkopf to have had the same idea twenty years after the MoMA show, in 2016, which is apparently when their discussions began. Both had some history with this giant of contemporary art, as did their respective institutions. Johns received his revelation of Marcel Duchamp’s work in Philadelphia in 1957, when he visited the museum to see what art historian Robert Rosenblum meant by calling his work Neo-Dada. Less well known but pointed out in one of the Whitney wall texts is that Johns may be the only living artist (certainly, he is one of the few) to have spent significant time at all four of the Whitney’s incarnations, from its original Eighth Street building, which it left in 1954, to its current quarters on Gansevoort Street, occupied in 2015. Both museums have done major Johns shows and own major Johns works, although the Whitney leads on both counts.

View of “Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror,” 2021–22, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. From left: Mirror’s Edge, 1992; Painted Bronze, 1960/64; Mirror’s Edge 2, 1993. Photo: Ron Amstutz. © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Clearly, the two cities were too close to each other (just a hundred miles apart) for a tour; each presentation had to be different. But why run them concurrently? The idea (apparently Basualdo’s2) was brilliant, and not just because it solved the awkward issue of who would go first, or at least shifted that issue to the viewer, forcing a not insignificant choice, since the second show will inevitably be seen through the lens of the first. The double-venue idea also brought out something essential, if hardly hidden, in Johns’s work: namely, his penchant for pairs of all kinds—near repetitions, mirror reversals, other symmetrical inversions, monochrome-polychrome pairs, optical illusions that toggle back and forth, tracings, casts, imprints, etc. As Rothkopf writes in a short introductory essay in the catalogue, “Once identified, this principle [of mirroring and doubling] proved omnipresent.” Or as Basualdo puts it, slightly differently, in his own introduction, “Once the structure of the show was established . . . the mechanism of mirroring and fragmentation [my emphasis] . . . could not help but reproduce itself.”

The device of a split show may be ideal for a doubler like Johns, but it is a shock for museums. The wonderful way it upsets standard operating procedure reminded me of a different excitement I felt at the Philadelphia Museum in 1995, when it staged John Cage’s “Rolywholyover: A Circus for Museum,” which randomly selected what would be displayed when from a pool of works by artists important to Cage. (The show opened at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and toured five venues.) “Mind/Mirror” answers that indeterminism with overdetermination, replacing chance with order. And what a satisfying order it is! At the bottom of every room text at the Whitney and in Philadelphia, one finds a note about the theme of the corresponding gallery at the opposite institution: For “Flags and Maps” in New York, there is “Numbers” in Philly; for “Dreams,” there’s “Nightmares”; for “South Carolina,” there’s “Japan”; and so forth through eleven tight pairings.

Appropriately, “Doubles and Reflections”—called “Mirror/Double” at the Whitney—is the only themed gallery common to both museums, appearing exactly halfway through each floor plan, as the sixth room in the show, and exactly halfway through the common catalogue, on page 173. (The OCD side of me is loving this.) And at the center of the “Doubles and Reflections” gallery in each museum stands the “same”3 work of art, Painted Bronze, a pair of Ballantine Ale cans from the early ’60s. And that is not all: Each pair of cans is mirrored literally. In Philadelphia, thanks to a nice bit of installation design, the sculpture has been given a mirror to sit on, creating an inverse, Narcissus-like image of the cans for the cans, while in New York the sculpture has been placed at the open center of an X of four floating mirror-edged walls.

An aside: This mirroring of the ale cans is inspired, not just cute, for it combines Johns’s two major types of formal doubling: repetition (the cans themselves) and reflection. Of these, it was repetition that came first in Johns’s work, with the flags and maps, and it is repetition that comes first to all of us as infants. As Roman Jakobson, pioneer of structural linguistics, once suggested, the doubling of a phoneme in “mama” and “papa” is what transforms those cries from sound into sign.4 (Jacques Lacan’s mirror comes later.) With Johns, the unexpected doubling of signs—when else are two flags or two maps ever jammed together?—has the reverse effect, transforming them at least partly back into raw material (not sound but image).

 Jasper Johns, Two Maps, 1989, encaustic on canvas, two panels, overall 90 × 70 1/4". © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

So much depends upon these cans.5 Looking at the pair at the Whitney, I thought of Wallace Stevens’s poem about a jar on a hill in Tennessee that “took dominion everywhere” and brought order to everything around it, including the speaker of the poem—except that a pair of cans is not a jar. As with any double, we can’t tell which or who is in charge. Maybe it is the space between, or the difference itself.6

So let’s talk difference, for it is at this double crux of the show(s), this point of maximum similarity, that the difference between them becomes clear. Basualdo’s room is neither square nor balanced. The principal wall offers a heavyweight discourse on the varieties of doubling, with Two Flags, 1962, and Two Maps, 1989, both vertical repeaters, separated by the horizontally and symmetrically divided crosshatch painting Corpse and Mirror II, 1974–75. Two cast lightbulbs engage in a pursuit along an adjoining wall, while two cast flashlights occupy the wall opposite that one, as if sending obscure, fossilized signals around the periphery of the room, signals the visitor will never receive. Amid all these relays on the walls, one might almost miss the pair of cans in the middle, absorbed as they are in themselves.

It is as if Johns’s own reticence about meaning and interpretation had rubbed off on the curators.

In the foursquare Whitney room, on the other hand, the architecture ensures that all the action radiates from that diminutive royal couple at the center, while two majestic, internally reflective works, Device, 1961–62, and Dancers on a Plane, 1979, communicate across the space through the X. Approaching the gallery, I had the uncanny sense of entering a hall of mirrors and even worried for a moment that I might smash into one. A painter I admire told me later that it reminded her of the look of downtown Dallas, i.e., dated kitsch. For my part, I thought the way it hinted at structuralism was brilliant: An X within a square calls to mind none other than the Klein Group, a set of negations and de-negations beloved by structuralist analysts and famously imported into art history by Rosalind Krauss. Rothkopf’s installation does not try to diagram Johns’s operations à la Krauss, preferring to leave things suggested and suggestive. No doubt a wise choice given the complexity of such a diagram.

However, I do wish more of an overarching account had been attempted somewhere. The catalogue has no master essay. Following the introductions mentioned above come short, elegant section texts (with Rothkopf as the lead writer) interspersed with color plates (way too small, but that’s what happens when you squeeze two shows into one book); focused essays, many of them excellent, by a nice variety of academics, curators, writers, and artists; and a thoughtful coda by Basualdo on Johns as a “master of chance.” This leaves a lot up to the reader-viewer. It is as if Johns’s own reticence about meaning and interpretation had rubbed off on the curators, who seem content to let the audience fill out Johns’s many forms of doubling with meaning and motive, or not, as they see fit. This is fine in principle, but a structural account requires some meat on its bones. The title of the show, “Mind/Mirror,” suggests an effort to provide such sustenance, but it ends up as no more than an alliterative come-on.7 The show is much more mirror than mind.

View of “Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror,” 2021–22, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo: Brian Green. © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The saving grace, or the flaw in the mirror, lies in the fact that the Whitney and Philadelphia presentations are not doubles of one another. Far from it. As we have seen, at each of the two venues, a tension plays out between structure and randomness, or order and disorder, that is itself a structure, and that could make a fair bid to be the real theme of the show. Remarkably, this polarity (hardly a new one in Johns scholarship) is nowhere announced, although the curators have dropped some hints. “Basualdo will emphasize the unsteady, ever-shifting meaning of Johns’s work, while the Whitney half is more likely to have a step-this-way clarity,” wrote Deborah Solomon, reporting on her preopening interviews.8 If this difference in emphasis permeated the ale-can rooms, it was clearer still in the way the two venues treated a display of Johns’s prints—chronologically at the Whitney, where they constituted a time line of the career on the opening wall, and stochastically at Philadelphia, where, in a tribute to the 1995 show mentioned above, they were organized in a separate row of galleries according to Cage’s random generator (with the extra prints awaiting their turn to be exhibited in a cage: Get it?).9 I actually appreciated the relative silence about these differences: It leaves us the pleasure of finding them ourselves.

There is a polarity in Johns’s work that has to do with medium itself—with Johns’s simultaneous acceptance of pictorial convention and his impatience with it, his need to push up, out, and away.

Another candidate for a master duality of Johns’s art is that of presence and absence. Again, I am hardly breaking new ground with this suggestion, and again, it is one that seems to emerge from the fact of the dual presentations, especially given those notes on the wall in New York about the counterpart galleries in Philadelphia. As I looked at all the Whitney’s flags and targets, absorbed in a beautiful and spacious installation of some of the most iconic paintings of the past century, I kept thinking of the numbers in Philadelphia as a half-conscious obbligato, a musical element that is obligatory, not to be left out. (And by the way, I thought the numbers got the best of this pairing: Seeing Johns’s concentrated investigation of their forms, layerings, transparencies, and opacities in so many media across some fifty works was my favorite moment at either venue.) The play of presence and absence is pure Johns, as the artist signaled in 1968, writing in Artforum after Duchamp’s death, “The art community feels Duchamp’s presence and his absence. He has changed the condition of being here.” Basualdo himself, once again in a preopening interview (this time with Alison McDonald) rather than in the catalogue, talked about “the delicate balance between being present to the work and being absent from it” as integral to the experience of tacking between the two venues.10

“View of Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror,” 2021–22, Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo: Joseph Hu. © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The theme of presence and absence could easily structure a Johns show in itself. It has most often been interpreted in terms of the artist’s authorial voice/presence/biography, which lurks somewhere below the surface of many of his works. Wall texts at the Whitney make a big deal of the familiar suggestion that his 1961 breakup with Robert Rauschenberg, after an intense relationship of several years, accounts for the bitter, biting quality of many of the gray paintings, an interpretation I have never put much stock in. But sometimes Johns does seem to be trying to escape an anonymity and restraint of his own making by bursting into our space. Witness the works he made in which his own face and hands press up against the sheet and the picture plane, as in Skin with O’Hara Poem, 1965—a futile or perhaps even mock attempt at self-revelation and interpersonal connection.

A related but even stronger polarity in the work, I would suggest, has to do with medium itself—with Johns’s simultaneous acceptance of pictorial convention (the flat rectangle as a surface of inscription and illusion) and his impatience with it, his need to push up, out, and away. And under this opposition, several others line up, or don’t quite line up. Limitation versus expansiveness (think of all the things he has hung on and off his canvases over the years). Secrecy versus revelation (which has been connected to his status as a semicloseted gay man). Silence versus speech (one that I road-tested in my own prior attempt to write on Johns). Obscurity versus clarity (even Johns’s obscurity or muddiness seems sharp and clear). Duchamp versus Cézanne (with Picasso as the third term). A crucial essay by the philosopher Emmanuel Alloa at the hinge of the catalogue, “Jasper’s Dilemma,” offers more still: saying versus seeing, tautegory (i.e., tautology) versus allegory.

Another way to think about Johns’s polarism (to coin a word) is to recall the four strategies that Yve-Alain Bois identified in Ellsworth Kelly’s early work, four classic moves of modernism: monochrome, chance, index, and grid. Significantly, each of these applies to Johns, but so does its opposite: polychrome, system, sign, and flurry.

The rush to a conclusion has made me telegraphic, or maybe it is just the panic that comes from realizing that with Johns, no conclusion is ever possible. In the end, what “Mind/Mirror” offers is very much what Johns’s oeuvre offers: a beautiful structure, simple and consistent at heart, manifold and evolving in practice, with little or no apparatus to tell us what it all means but everything to look at and think about, to turn over and track down—often to no avail. Perhaps that last liberating fact, that nonprospect, is, as much as any of the oppositions driving Johns’s work, what leaves me feeling calm and clear amid the panic. 

Harry Cooper is senior curator and head of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Jasper Johns, Skin with O’Hara Poem, 1965, lithograph, 22 × 34". © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


1. Kirk Varnedoe, Jasper Johns: A Retrospective (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1996), 17.

2. According to Deborah Solomon, “Seeing Double with Jasper Johns,” New York Times, September 13, 2021,

3. The two casts were not made at the same time, and Johns handpainted them differently: Look at the placement of the rickrack labels advertising the “Brewer’s Gold” ingredients, which indicates that the cans are turned toward each other in one pair, away in the other. And within each pair, one can has been opened.

4. Roman Jakobson, “Why ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’?” (1960), in his anthology On Language (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1990), 309.

5. They are also Duchampian found objects, not because they are life casts, which do not quite qualify, but because the idea to make them reportedly came to Johns in response to Willem de Kooning’s mocking remark that Leo Castelli was so good he could sell two beer cans.

6. I owe this general thought to my colleague James Meyer, whose exhibition “The Double: Identity and Difference in Art Since 1900” will coincidentally open this summer at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, with ample representation of Johns.

7. “‘In the end,’ Rothkopf said matter-of-factly, ‘that wasn’t to be the theme of the show.’” Solomon, “Seeing Double with Jasper Johns.” Only two of the essays, by R. H. Quaytman and Michael Ann Holly, deal much with the question of mind.

8. Ibid. Solomon notes the irony that the ale cans belonging to and displayed in New York had long been on loan from the artist to Philadelphia until last year, when Leonard Lauder purchased and donated them to the Whitney.

9. An essay in the catalogue by Sandra Skurvida (303) traces the history of Cage’s “circus,” as well as his role in turning Johns on to Duchamp’s ideas about chance, identity/difference, and “semantic volatility.” Thanks to my family for pointing out the Cage-cage pun.

10. Alison McDonald, interview with Basualdo and Rothkopf, Gagosian Quarterly, Winter 2021, 39.