Jasper Johns

The relatively small and nondescript city of Leeds, situated in England’s industrial north, might not sound like the kind of place where you would find the first ever exhibition of Jasper Johns’ sculpture, yet, particularly where sculpture is concerned, Leeds has a distinguished past and an increasingly active present.

Not only does the City Art Gallery have the finest collection of 20th-century British sculpture outside the Tate, but three years ago, the Henry Moore Foundation built the Centre for the Study of Sculpture next door, where the Johns exhibition was generated. The show itself actually took place in a small mezzanine gallery above the CAG’s permanent display of maquettes—an interesting ploy, given the awkward facture and graspable scale of so much of Johns’ sculpture. However, whereas traditional maquettes tend to serve as a sculptor’s sketches, a vehicle for the expression and evolution of fresh ideas, Johns’ “maquettes” are almost the reverse: a place where readymade ideas are circumscribed, even fossilized.

Over and over again in these works, Johns complicates simple ideas, muddies and thickens flat surfaces. This is perhaps why the first stand-alone sculptures of 1958 are cast lightbulbs and flashlights. These scuffed emblems of instant illumination aren’t broken, but they do resemble beached leviathans. One lightbulb has a truncated tail of electrical cord, while two others line up next to a socket and a crumpled twist of cord. Johns isn’t saying Let there not be light, but he is saying Let’s bring light down to earth, and make it look limited and even a little obsolete. With light dethroned, people might be more wary about perception.

Johns takes arresting images—flags, targets, cans—and makes them a little less flashy. The infamous ale cans were conceived the year after The Critic Smiles, 1959—which consists of a toothbrush handle furnished with four amorphous molars instead of bristles—and one can’t help wondering if there’s a connection. In the first, plaster version of the ale cans from 1960, the cans sit up pale and worn, like prehistoric dentures, while in the painted version the cans are more streamlined, though the surface is artfully distressed, the paint rather turgid and blurred.

So why did Johns take up sculpture in 1958, and why did he more or less stop in 1961? My guess is that this was the period when he was most interested in slowing and impeding the viewer’s vision (False Start was painted in 1959). An obvious way of accomplishing this goal is to force viewers to walk right round an artwork. Perhaps he stopped making sculpture because what he gained in dimension, he lost in extension. Whatever the reason, this lovely show did succeed in reminding one that Johns’ best period came when he was flitting between painting and sculpture. After he stopped making sculptures, or attaching objects to paintings, his work fell increasingly flat.

James Hall