New York

Jasper Johns, Untitled (detail), 2018, twenty-four drawings in ink on paper or plastic, each 11 1⁄2 × 8 1⁄2".

Jasper Johns, Untitled (detail), 2018, twenty-four drawings in ink on paper or plastic, each 11 1⁄2 × 8 1⁄2".

Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns’s “Recent Paintings & Works on Paper” at Matthew Marks Gallery, featuring thirty-eight pieces made between 2012 and 2018, was simultaneously a tour de force and a last hurrah—an understated meditation on Johns’s vast artistic legacy that also seemed to reckon with the artist’s own mortality. (Johns is, after all, almost ninety years old.) Amid the shadows and subtle anxieties expressed in this show was Untitled, 2018, a suite of twenty-four small ink drawings hung in a well-lit backroom/sepulcher, each of which depicted a grinning skeleton. The bony figure looks like a bit of a dandy, an entertainer; sometimes he wields a cane and wears a jaunty little hat. Maybe the skeleton is a stand-in for the artist himself, a kind of mute song-and-dance man who has successfully played the role of cipher for decades, while, with a certain mischievous irony, conveying some pretension to greatness. In one drawing, the skeleton—and implicitly the image itself—disintegrates into black dots, in effect the atoms Lucretius claimed we all become after we die. If the artist is portraying himself as Death, he makes it clear that his only raison d’être is to create art, which, frankly, makes it seem like his life was one that was only half lived.

The series of paintings informally known as “Farley Breaks Down,” 2002–18, is based on a 1965 picture taken in Vietnam by the photojournalist Larry Burrows of a young Marine, James C. Farley, mourning an ally who was killed in an ambush. Farley, slumped over and isolated in despair, epitomizes the agony of war. This grouping called to mind van Gogh’s Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate), 1890—which the Dutch artist made roughly two months before his suicide—featuring a broken soul bent over and sitting on a chair, weeping into his hands. Johns’s variegated gesturalism across the “Farley” works is a phenomenon unto itself—a form of allover painting that’s strangely fossilized. The painted gestures cover the subject’s body like a shroud in After Larry Burrows, 2014, made from ink and water-soluble encaustic on plastic. And the titular soldier all but disappears in Farley Breaks Down, 2014—done with the same materials as After Larry Burrows—in which the figure becomes pure ambience in an atmosphere of earthen camouflage colors. The “Farley” pieces are quiet if eloquent marvels of abstraction. Yet they are, as Johns’s art has always been, infuriatingly cool. Even in the artist’s golden years, the works give off no emotional heat.

Johns is a self-consciously clever aesthete, a connoisseur of surface and form—seemingly detached from what existentialists call the “suffering unto death.” His extraordinary control, to my eye, makes the final exit a rather decorative affair, unlike van Gogh’s deceptively simple and straightforward image. Johns reduces Farley to a mere vehicle in order to show off his skill and undeniable ingeniousness, using modes of very high art to outwit the anxiety that dying arouses. The approach works—but ultimately this, like the artist’s cartoon skeletons, tells us nothing about what it means to sense one’s impending demise gnawing away from the inside, grinding the spirit down with grief, as van Gogh’s incurably tragic figure does. Johns polishes death into a thing of pearl-like beauty and treats it as a sort of joke, distorting fear with finesse. I suppose this is a worthy achievement—but also one that feels curiously bloodless.