“Jasper Johns: Gray”

The Art Institute of Chicago

JASPER JOHNS has been the subject of so many career surveys, narrowly conceived museum exhibitions, and critical/theoretical writings that one might be forgiven for some initial skepticism regarding the need for a big show focusing on his use of the color gray. The premise seemed symptomatic of a curatorial compulsion to occupy niches perhaps not crying to be filled. But the show’s reality obviated such ungenerous concerns: “Jasper Johns: Gray” operates as a kind of shadow retrospective, illuminating in a necrotic light a narrative underbelly that even his most attentive enthusiasts might have had trouble imagining, and for which it is difficult to summon an artistic or curatorial precedent.

Johns has made a lot of gray art, and there was a lot of it in the show, which brought together nearly 140 paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures. The exhibition began with two paintings from 1959, False Start (which is not gray but contains the word gray as a pictorial element) and Jubilee (which is basically black, white, and gray, and also includes that word). These works were not the earliest present but were positioned to frame curators Douglas Druick and James Rondeau’s didactic intentions, and, considered in tandem, they succinctly encapsulate the artist’s early concerns with the nature of language’s relationship to experience and with the doubtful possibility that thought or feeling could be transferred as meaning to an artwork, along with his agnostic relationship to the content of painterly gesture. Both iconic canvases are “about” gray, whether as a subject (the word gray) or as an experienced fact, and although their juxtaposition is hardly rocket science, it isn’t at all obvious to use them to introduce room after room of relentlessly colorless material.

Henceforth, the installation was organized by subject or perceived affinity and, in gross terms, chronologically. Early on, Johns began dealing with his subjects as motifs or armatures that provided points of departure for works in various media and categories. (His gravitation to printmaking was probably both a result and a reinforcement of this basic disposition.) A precedent might be Cézanne’s repetitive return to certain landscape subjects, although the operations of rotation, doubling, and mirroring, which Johns combined with his attraction to the properties of diverse materials, located his work in a diagrammatic and abstract realm. The American flag, at this point an almost overdetermined touchstone in our view of his artistic origins, provided the structure not only for the historically critical and familiar Flag paintings but also for a surprising number of gray versions, which neutralize the weirdly ambivalent patriotic formalism of their better-known siblings and set the subject adrift in a sociologically disconnected limbo. It was particularly interesting to see Two Flags, 1959, which is painted in acrylic, a material that Johns has used only rarely and that gives this painting a scratchy, dry starkness very different from the more familiar and lush encaustic versions. The fact that this subject famously came to Johns in a dream was reinforced by these ghostly alter egos.

Targets, maps, alphabets, and numbers, the other key subjects of Johns’s early work, were all absorbed into his repetitive and relentless mode of investigation, and all appeared at some point in gray incarnations. This was the period of early television, years before color became the norm, and black-and-white photographs were still the common form. His ideas about color at that time played off commercial four-color printing technology and the systematized, nameable hues of the spectrum, so it was perhaps only logical for an artist of such a literal and analytic turn of mind to extend his territory into the gray scale, but that doesn’t account for the oddness and power of much of this work. The gray number paintings in particular, such as the superimposed composition 0 through 9, 1961, and the renderings of individual numerals like Figure 2, 1962, and 4 Leo, done surprisingly late, in 1970, convey a philosophical weight and grating objecthood different from their more familiar relatives. Of all Johns’s subjects, these isolated integers are perhaps the most archetypally powerful: Hovering revenants from the dawn of abstract thought, translingual and transnational, these numerals basic to all the systems that make our civilization possible are also utterly prosaic, a part of the earliest imprinting by which an individual undergoes socialization. Other paintings that have appeared widely in more “normal” Johns surveys, such as 4 the News, Device, and Fool’s House, all 1962; Voice, 1964–67; and the monumental drawing Diver, 1962–63, were elevated to a kind of creepy majesty by the absence of their more brightly colored contemporaries.

There were a few breaks in the retrospective continuity of the exhibition, and the first and most telling was that between these works of the mid- to late ’60s and the appearance of the so-called Crosshatch paintings in 1972. These emerged as an apparent turn toward abstraction (which, as with most of Johns’s subject matter, proved to be not so abstract), and in them the function and affect of gray appear to have changed. There is no longer the sense that these paintings represent black-and white versions of other works or motifs. Instead, gray operates more as its own color, increasingly nuanced toward the edges of definition and cohabiting more openly with its skewed chromatic relatives. The Dutch Wives, 1975, is a gray painting in only the most nominal sense; calling it such is a bit like referring to a Zurburán as black. Céline, 1978, is a particularly mesmerizing example of the decayed pictorial mulch Johns was turning at the time, a balance between structural order and random, emotionally charged gestures like the lurid orange handprint in the top section of the painting.

Modern and contemporary art history is loaded with examples of artists after whom others were doomed to toil in a changed landscape. Duchamp, Picasso, Pollock, Warhol, and Richter, to name some of the most obvious examples, have all been posited as limiting cases, and there was a time when Johns was seen by many as the definitive paradigm shifter, parked squarely across any road an ambitious younger artist might take to the future. The problem with this approach to history is the freezing in amber of living artists within a theoretically useful but artificially static slice of their own trajectory, which fails utterly to account for the growth in time of individual experience. These “after-artists” also have to live “after” themselves, and Johns’s solution to that problem (if, indeed, he himself ever saw it as such) has been instructive.

Throughout the ’80s and more recently, Johns appeared to contradict the strict parameters of his earlier work. His subjects have grown increasingly personal, obscure, and even arbitrary in feeling. The “known unknowns” and “unknown knowns,” to expand upon Donald Rumsfeld’s formulation, have accomplished a fairly complete migration from the realm of public signs to that of memory and intuitive association. How much and what kind of a change this represents are fundamental questions raised by Johns’s art. Psychically charged objects appear in a shallow space reminiscent of trompe l’oeil painting, arranged in almost scrapbook fashion across the surface of the picture, while points of view unlike any in his previous work are suggested. The motif of the running bathtub faucet at the bottom edge of the pictorial field, which is seen from the perspective of “the bather” (initiating a weird chain of association back toward late Cézanne), appears in many works of this time and establishes a space of blocked intimacy, intensely private and inaccessible. The depiction of what is presumably the artist’s shadow falling across the “Seasons” canvases similarly invokes moments of passing solitude and fleeting perceptions of the uncanny that are both common to and far from the public domain. Following his earlier practice, Johns made two versions of Racing Thoughts, one in 1983 in rather colorful encaustic and one a year later in oil with a palette dominated by shades of gray, tan, and brown, which was included in the exhibition. While technically a version of another work, the more somber of the pair extends the multivalent chromaticism of the Crosshatch works, with gray again functioning as a kind of color choice, the dominant tone in a slightly off-key chord. Winter, 1986, from “The Seasons,” was also in the show and further demonstrated the complex new layers of evocation Johns was finding in a predominantly gray palette. It was a mild relief to see this painting isolated from the other three in the group and to consider it as part of the exhibition’s narrative rather than having to focus on the intricate permutation of symbols across the entire series. The chilly subject matter turned the content of the show back toward universal experience, however different weather may be from the realm of signs or abstraction. Johns’s perhaps oddest area of exploration during this phase involved images of facial features, schematically rendered and dispersed around the edges of the rectangular fi eld, creating the sense that the canvas, though occupied by other motifs, is itself a face. This sounds like such a bad idea that it is always surprising to encounter these things in person and to interact with their loopy intensity. Untitled, 1991, whose creamy white field stretched the envelope of the show’s premise, was nonetheless welcome as a locator of an outer edge of Johns’s sensibility.

The “Catenary” series, which has occupied Johns for much of the past decade, uses as its central device the curve formed when a cord is hung between two points. This figure is present both as a literal artifact (a suspended string) and at the level of image, often inscribed within the gray expanses that fill most of these paintings. The catenary curve is viscerally satisfying and metaphorically rich, triggering thoughts of trajectories, lifelines, and the immutable laws of material existence. The rainy-looking gray fields reinforce these associations, as do titles like Catenary (I Call to the Grave), 1998. There are some strange notes. The simple wooden slats and more complex hinged elements at the edges have a cabinetwork feeling a bit at odds with the paintings’ sepulchral atmosphere, but they are consistent with Johns’s earlier interests and might also allude to the conventions of Northern altarpiece painting, embodying a conception of picture-object relations not typical of our moment. Most of the catenaries themselves are asymmetrical, connecting points of different heights, but in Near the Lagoon, 2002–2003, one of Johns’s largest paintings, the curve is bilaterally symmetrical, like a parabola. It was somewhat jarring, after studying the painting for several minutes, to realize that its opaque monumentality was giving way to the sensation of standing before the chest and necklace of a gray female giant. Given some of the associative matrices Johns has constructed, this doesn’t seem an entirely ridiculous thought. These are extremely complicated paintings, uningratiating and counterintuitive, yet ruthlessly consistent with the long arc of Johns’s concerns. It is impossible to imagine them having been made by a younger artist, and they may operate out in front of what we typically consider good taste.

The exhaustiveness of Johns’s working methods can encourage a curatorial inclusiveness that tends to bury more poetic readings, and if this show suffers from anything, it is too much of a good thing. While the reciprocity among the various media is illuminating, it dilutes what might have been a more stark and focused immersion in this overcast parallel dimension of Johns’s sensibility. The thought did occur that it’s far more unusual to see a gray painting than a gray drawing or print, and the sculptures’ implications go in another direction entirely. Nevertheless, by the end of the exhibition, one felt as though the threshold of one’s eyesight had been altered. Persistent grayness, in all its subtle forms, brought the material qualities of the work to the forefront of consciousness, so they were viscerally experienced rather than intellectually appreciated. It seemed possible to imagine another art history, in a world of the color-blind, where the “pictorial” is defined not by chromatic optics but rather by value and the physical layering of primordial matter. After a second look at the show’s beginning, False Start felt like a false note, overly rich, like candy when one needs balanced nutrition. But, of course, this impression could also signal a newfound accommodation to death over life, if the expressive and metaphoric layers of these works are fully accepted.

During the 1980s painting renaissance in New York, Johns represented the gold standard of propagandistic reference: There was no artist in whose shadow a younger painter of a certain disposition would rather have been perceived. More recently, that honor has apparently fallen to Andy Warhol. The inwardness and self-referentiality of Johns’s interests, and the care he takes in making things (while avoiding nostalgic and regressive conventions of representation), are at odds with the general tone of the art scene right now. Yet if certain iconographic and aesthetic considerations are suspended, his negotiation between the demands of the private self and an acknowledgment of painting’s closed and self-generating nature is vividly illuminated. This exhibition, by employing such an apparently narrow filter, opens a window on the intricately branching pathways Johns has followed. The accompanying catalogue features a conversation with the artist that is a model of prickly, contrarian precision. He basically disavows any thoughts about possible precedents for his involvement with gray and in fact disavows having thought much about the subject at all. When asked about the historical dilemma in which a young artist of his day might have found himself, he replies, “For me, there was no art-historical problem—I wasn’t that sophisticated.” Far from being disingenuous, this goes to the heart of what is so fascinating about Johns’s perceived role and his work itself. Operating expansively within his own limitations, applying a rather bleak vision, a demanding work ethic, and an almost annoyingly thorough autodidactic scrutiny to subjects, materials, and procedures that he could consider plausible, he became a screen for the wide-ranging projections of others while he has traveled deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of his own preoccupations. What is there was always there, but, as this show made clear, there are many versions of the truth.

“Jasper Johns: Gray” will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from Feb. 5 through May 4.

Carroll Dunham is an artist based in New York.