New York

Jasper Johns

Leo Castelli Gallery

The standard line on Jasper Johns’ work of the last decade is that it is more personal—at last the artist reveals himself. As Johns admits, the seeming elision of subjectivity that informed his great early works finally became too hard an act to keep up. In an interview from 1978 he explained, “In my early work I tried to hide my personality, my psychological state, my emotions. This was partly due to my feelings about myself and partly due to my feelings about painting at the time. I sort of stuck to my guns for a while but eventually it seemed like a losing battle. Finally one must simply drop the reserve. I think some of the changes in my work relate to that.” The intersection of Johns’ feelings about himself and his “feelings about painting at the time” is one of those mysteries that ought to remain one, but undoubtedly future art historians obsessed with the dissemination of proper names will see to it that sooner or later we all know that Jasper Johns lived, loved, and cried, too.

Johns’ ultrafamous flags, targets, alphabets, and numbers were everyday yet hermetic, inarticulate yet thick with oblique suggestions. Johns’ recent works, by contrast, maintain that seductive obliquity only as an empty signifier for itself, as if ill-advisedly proclaiming, “Look! My meanings are elusive, my sources recondite!” And so the new works are littered with a passel of art-historical references: a little Picasso here, a nod to Zurbarán there. A host of other twee motifs floats through Johns’ now vaguely illusionistic space: a watch and a sailboat, cartoonish fleshy lips, and bug-out eyes. There is a sense of idle doodling here—referentially sophisticated but infantilized—that has become the latest in a long line of motifs for Johns. He returns over and over to the same flaccid lines in various combinations. This obsessional manner is quite congruent with the artist’s prior practice, but the overinvested meaningfulness of it all does not bear repetition as did the iconic works of the ’50s.

Perhaps what is most shocking about the new work of America’s greatest living artist is that it doesn’t even look well-painted. The simultaneously restrained and luxuriant painterliness that was until very recently Johns’ trademark is nowhere to be found here. Instead we get expanses of flat, uninflected color that might as well have been laid down by a sign painter. Several of these works bear the name “St. Martin” lettered in their corners or margins, and for me this was the most telling reference in a show overburdened by vacant ones. It’s okay to make art in the Caribbean, just so long as it doesn’t look like it was all done during a two-week vacation.

David Rimanelli