New York

Jasper Johns, Fragment of a Letter, 2009, bronze, 38 5/8 x 24 3/8 x 1/2".

Jasper Johns, Fragment of a Letter, 2009, bronze, 38 5/8 x 24 3/8 x 1/2".

Jasper Johns

Matthew Marks Gallery

Jasper Johns, Fragment of a Letter, 2009, bronze, 38 5/8 x 24 3/8 x 1/2".

Despite my effervescing anticipation, Jasper Johns’s “New Sculpture and Works on Paper” inspired but a cool response. This owed, no doubt, to the academicism that has crept into Johns’s work over several decades now—that is, if we think of academicism as the preservation of the model, the paradigm case, rather than its overthrow. But let me quickly add that even the most conservative of Johns’s works still overshadows the larger field of players.

My quasi detachment from these reliefs—they are much more reliefs than sculpture—is heightened by the memory of the blinding enthusiasm that greeted the original encaustic flags, targets, gridded numbers, and alphabets that, at midcentury, established the territory this new work still mines. Eventually, Johns began to include a more abstruse iconography in his work: jigsawlike shapes based on the sleeping armored soldier in Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, ca. 1510–15, or variations on Picasso’s The Minotaur Moves His House, 1936. This occluding arcana, over time, has morphed into a double signifier, both of source and of the artist’s own oeuvre. Such recondite appeals highlight Johns’s ever-present predilection for refinement, of subject as well as surface—for “finish,” that is—yet another telling academic signifier. It presents itself here in the metals used—bronze, white bronze, aluminum, silver—as well as in their patinas and degrees of polish.

Johns’s drift toward overt sculpture was foreshadowed by the congruency of image and format typical of his early achievement—the rectangle of the American flag, say, determining the format of the work in question. Such a solution points to the inherent “objectness” of his work. This, added to his choice of “genres”—hidden-in-plain-sight figures such as flags, alphabets, and numbers—all dotingly painted in encaustic (and superbly drawn, too, mustn’t forget drawing, as Johns’s gift is preeminently graphic), was noteworthy from the outset. Remarkable as well was the artist’s literary sophistication, a function of an innate sprezzatura that inspired nonchalant conceits such as the early Flag, 1960, “painted” in Sculp-metal—a hobbyist material that, when dry, allows the amateur to bypass the entire problem of casting a work. From the start, then, Johns’s paintings were unspoken sculptures—an intimation that, a half century down the line, is carried to explicit, if protracted, conclusion.

In like manner, the layers of newsprint embedded within and supported by encaustic—those layers of paint depicting and enclosing words, numbers, and letters—at times petrified into a kind of scabbiness that virtually itches for scratching. I recall distinctly that when the large, gray 1964 Numbers was first installed in the New York State Theater of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the painting was blasphemed nightly by the distracted fingerings of smokers picking at the work when not actually leaning against it. (A velvet cordon finally served to isolate it from the witless assaults of the intermission goths).

A new iconographic morsel has entered the artist’s thematic larder—a letter from Vincent van Gogh to Émile Bernard, in English translation, fragmented and, when cast, appearing in reversed letters on the verso of one work: “Set aside all petty jealousies for only union is strength . . . the common interest is worth the sacrifice of the selfishness of every man for himself . . . With a hearty handshake.” Surely, such passionate admonitions strike home sharply at this late date. The letter suggests Johns’s nostalgic esteem for his intensely creative circle, particularly for the late Merce Cunningham—by admission, Johns’s favorite artist—whose footprint is literally preserved in two of the sculptures. In recent years, the death of another grand comrade, Robert Rauschenberg, must have sparked an equally poignant retrospection only natural to an artist now in his eighties—and warranting, as it were, our seeing Johns’s transformation of a Post-Impressionist letter as a ruminative stele, conceptual riddle, and valedictorian gravestone. The death of Cy Twombly this past July adds another elegaic note on the passing of this Promethean generation.

Robert Pincus-Witten