New York

“Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?”

Tony Shafrazi Gallery

The peculiar show “Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?” which was “conceived by Urs Fischer and Gavin Brown,” as the press materials inform us, and was recently on view at Tony Shafrazi Gallery, was an art-world gambit requiring more backstory than any in recent memory. It starts in February 1974, when Shafrazi, then a thirty-year-old artist, defaced Picasso’s Guernica at the Museum of Modern Art, tagging the phrase KILL LIES ALL across the painting’s convulsing surface. (The subsequent arrest is further immortalized on the show’s announcement, which shows a stony Shafrazi in handcuffs flanked by cops.) He later defended his action by saying that he wanted to render Guernica “absolutely up-to-date, to retrieve it from art history and give it life.”

That spray painting equaled ballsy avant-gardism for Shafrazi was an equation that held. It was according to this logic that he opened his gallery in 1980 and assembled a stable heavy on graffiti artists. But the rule should not have been hard and fast, and after twenty-some years of featuring homogenous exhibitions, the program needed change. Enter artist Fischer, who, for his Rip van Winkle “intervention” in collaboration with gallerist Gavin Brown, first photographed Shafrazi’s recent exhibition “Four Friends” (Donald Baechler, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf), a reprise of the dealer’s halcyon years that had been up for a glacial four months at the time of the shoot this past April. The resulting photomural appropriated the installation wholesale: guards, gallery infrastructure, walls, and artworks. Over this full-scale trompe l’oeil wallpaper hung “real” works by twenty-two artists ranging from Francis Bacon and John Chamberlain to Jeff Koons and Christopher Wool, many of whom play a role in the gallery’s history. Additionally, acrylic waves and bubble-gum splats applied to the wallpaper by Lily van der Stokker interposed yet another mediating screen.

All of this precipitated an infinite regress with picture obfuscating or amplifying picture. Picabia’s kitschy 1943 portrait of Suzanne Romain rested quixotically on a Baechler folly with a top-hatted dandy standing among levitating beach balls. Fresh off its star turn at the Guggenheim, Richard Prince’s Spiritual America, 1983, a photograph of a too-young, too-glistening Brooke Shields rising from her bath like a river nymph, was situated next to Sue Williams’s painting Dessert, 1990, sending up Prince’s unsavory one-liners (Williams’s cartoon centers on a man about to slap a woman, whom he addresses as a “stupid cunt”). Both sat atop a Basquiat that was mercilessly neutered in the process. Thanks to another perverse overlay, a Cindy Sherman vomit close-up issues from the mouth of a roughly contemporary Scharf. Placed on a carpet designed by Rudolf Stingel, sculptural totems (a Cady Noland propped against a Haring, a Robert Morris fun-house-mirror vortex positioned midroom) furthered the spectacular dislocations and gave the whole affair the satiety of a Gesamtkunstwerk—what Jerry Saltz dubbed “a walk-in Louise Lawler.”

As many formal and material provocations as the juxtapositions offered, however, the show kept shuttling elsewhere, to factors no less motivated for being exogenous: backward to Shafrazi’s juvenile delinquency, sideways to Brown and Fischer’s collaborations, and so on. This slipperiness inhered, too, in the exhibition’s title—an homage to Barnett Newman’s painting Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?, which was supposedly meant to be called Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns? until Johns protested. In Leo Steinberg’s classic formulation, Johns’s pictures embody “a sense of desolate waiting,” for drawers to be opened, and more to the point, for targets to be shot at—and Brown and Fischer have responded by doing just that.

Suzanne Hudson