“Jasper Johns: Regrets” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

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Jasper Johns, Regrets (2013), oil on canvas, 67″ x 96″; courtesy the Museum of Modern Art

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A regular Vanity Fair column is the “Proust Questionnaire,” wherein a celebrity is asked a range of questions, the answers to which are presumably revealing if not exactly Proustian in length: Tidy quips are the norm. (The column takes off from a questionnaire Proust filled out as a precocious fifteen-year-old.) A few years back, Jasper Johns, the man who “changed the course of American painting,” was asked to participate. His answers were laconic, bemused, and without grammatical niceties like punctuation and uppercase letters. When queried as to what form he would prefer to take upon being reincarnated, Johns replied: “must I decide before I die.” Some of the replies were telling. What is your greatest regret, Mr. Johns? “An absence of clarity.”

Now we have “Jasper Johns: Regrets” at the Museum of Modern Art, an exhibition devoted to the artist’s recent efforts. That’s right: Johns’s drawings, prints, and paintings have bypassed the commercial gallery scene and been deemed “museum-ready” by no less an authority than The Behemoth of Fifty-third Street. Given Johns’s reputation and, lest we forget, the astronomical prices his work fetches at auction, how could MOMA not glad-hand the status quo? Johns is, after all, a lynchpin of the standard telling of twentieth-century art. Along with his neo-Duchampian comrade-in-arms Robert Rauschenberg, he provided the transition between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, between serious (if often overblown) attempts at tapping into the unconscious to the canny (if sometimes perspicacious) coopting of mass media.

Much has been made of the exhibition’s title-conceit and Johns’s age. How might the notion of “regret” inform the work of an eighty-three-year-old artist? Mortality and retrospection can, of course, filter their way through art. The dearth of color at MOMA intimates gravity: Gray is the rule. The source material for the new work—a circa-1964 photograph of the British painter Lucian Freud—can lead to conjecturing about how one blue chip painter considers another. But Johns is less interested in Freud—whose psycho-sexual riffs on nineteenth-century figure painting have little in common with neo-Dadaist bromides—than the photograph itself. Having been recovered from Francis Bacon’s notoriously ill-kempt studio, John Deakin’s picture is folded, spindled, and mutilated beyond repair. For Johns, the Freud portrait is like a target or a can of Savarin coffee—a peg on which to hang, and merely hang, paint.

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John Deakin, Photograph of Lucian Freud (circa 1964), gelatin silver print with paper clips, 12-11/16″ x 12-11/16″ x 9/16″; courtesy the Museum of Modern Art

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Deakin’s photo is included in “Regrets,” along with two sizable oil paintings by Johns, a dozen studies on paper, a suite of etchings, and a series of monoprints based on numeric stencils—the latter being the only works that don’t explicitly refer to the Freud picture. I say “explicitly” because you never know with this artist. Johns says he regrets an absence of clarity, but it’s long been his stock-in-trade. Johns’s vaunted artistic strategy—“Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.”—is cited early on in a wall label. As a corrective to the hairy-chested mythopoeia of the New York School, Johns’s deadpan pedanticism presented a tongue-in-cheek alternative. But it proved no less resistant to formula than the umpteenth de Kooning knock-off. Over the years, Johns has finessed his approach through the inclusion of myriad biographical, cultural, and historical reference points. Not, however, by artistic means. Johns has trod the same sludgy ground since a dream prompted him to paint the American flag almost sixty years ago. His art has gone nowhere. Jasper Johns has been ever thus.

In most of the new work, Johns creates a mirror-image of Deakin’s photo, wherein a sizable tear at the bottom left is transformed into a centralized, monolithic form that is then topped by a skull. Freud—seen in a seedy bedroom, his face hidden by a fleeting gesture—is all but obliterated by marks that emphasize shape and material at the expense of recognizability. A range of materials is employed in delineating this superstructure—most agreeably with ink on plastic, most lugubriously with oil on canvas. In Study for Regrets (2012), the phrase “Regrets, Jasper Johns” is rubber-stamped in the upper right-hand corner. (Johns had the stamp fabricated well before conceiving the work in the current exhibition, in order to make short shrift of the myriad requests and invitations he receives.) This trope appears on a larger scale in the paintings, and its execution is just as second-hand: The phrase comes courtesy of a screen print. Elsewhere, we see Johns scribbling notes alluding to The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, and, in a welcome burst of color, an untitled watercolor is accented with saturated reds, blues, and yellows—a palette reminiscent, in no small way, of MOMA’s very own Map (1961), a signature Johns image.

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Jasper Johns, Untitled (2013), watercolor on paper, 22-1/4″ x 31″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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Count all of the above as signposts of master painters long gone (Goya), recently gone (Freud and, tangentially, Bacon), and still with us (Johns). But, really, who cares? Aesthetic engagement is prompted by an artist creating a compelling, absorbing, undeniable, and, not least, available fiction. How convincingly this is put into motion depends on a bewilderiing number of factors, primary among them formal control, material command, and a willingness to let the audience enter into the work—to share the vision. Johns’s art is confounding in that it trades in a stunningly willful brand of obfuscation. It doesn’t even allow the courtesy of a “my way or the highway” option. There is no way with Johns. Each of his abstruse rebuses is a calculated rebuff to anyone not clued into their byzantine minutiae. It’s enough to make you think that art is a mummified parlor game masquerading as intellectual provocation. Given Johns’s current stature, a lot of people, many of them influential, are content with that idea. Now that is something to regret.

© 2014 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 edition of The New Criterion.

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