Jasper Johns at Matthew Marks Gallery

ImageJasper Johns, Catenary (Jacob’s Ladder) (1999), encaustic on canvas and wood with objects; © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

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Do you know what a “catenary” is? I don’t know what a catenary is, and neither, I am convinced, does Jasper Johns. You certainly won’t be clued in by his recent paintings, drawings and prints-collectively titled, you guessed it, Catenary-on view at the 22nd Street branch of the Matthew Marks Gallery. The press release doesn’t help; it briefly mentions that a catenary is a kind of curve and leaves it at that.

Obfuscation is par for Mr. Johns’ course. He has, after all, made a not-insignificant career of trading in rebus-like conundrums. The flags, the targets, the stenciled letters, the biographical minutiae, all laid out with a patient disregard for clarity–you’re not supposed to get it; that’s the point. So forget definitions and listen to this: After the 1996 MoMA retrospective–the last time New Yorkers had a chance to see the artist’s work in any depth–Mr. Johns “retreated to his studio in Connecticut to wipe the slate clean, beginning a body of work that was a dramatic departure from anything he had made before.”

That might be true if Mr. Johns had taken up painting floral still lifes, the kind routinely sold for $29.95 in hotel chains across the nation. Yet the pictures at Marks are typically and utterly Johnsian–that is to say, stolid and sludgy, predictable in their pastichery and oh-so-dull.

The oddments of assemblage, the poorly painted trompe l’oeil passages, the constellations, the patterning, the dour pseudo-intellectualism of it all–this isn’t a dramatic departure; it’s cookie-cutter product, D.O.A. That’s about all anyone should expect from Mr. Johns, but that doesn’t answer the question: Can art galleries be held liable for false advertising? Contrary to the claims made for it, Mr. Johns’ slate remains consummately unwiped.

© 2005 Mario Naves

Originally published in the June 5, 2005 edition of The New York Observer.

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