“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,

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