Hot topics | Coronavirus pandemic

Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror at the Whitney in New York gives a new look at arguably the most inscrutable artist

Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror at the Whitney in New York gives a new look at arguably the most inscrutable artist

The fifth floor elevators at the Whitney Museum of American Art whisk open to a kaleidoscope of Jasper Johns. Flags and targets, crosshatches and maps, bright color and dun-gray, as well as some of the countrys most obscure artists, are contested in this wide and unsettling exhibition. In this group of paintings, nose to nose, it then offers you a choice, though its really no choice at all: Left or right, both ways lead to darkness.

Johns is best known for his clever and consistent use of familiar emblems and symbols: things the mind already knows, he once said, a hook slickly set with easy-to-swallow bait. His works may have a hint of the playful big textbook maps of America splattered with bright flecks of paint, hand-painted number grids from zero to nine in an array of colors and materials but they arent. Instead, theyre bleak, obsessive, furtive-seeming; a cool critique of the everyday, structures built to contain the uncontainable.

The artist could disappear, and in most cases did, within them. But Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror, a vast new retrospective that runs from the Whitney to 'the Philadelphia Museum of Art, brings the artist closer to the surface than any other retrospective. It is, surprisingly and often, personal and even confessional anathema to Johnss formative era and context, where cold formalism reigned. Im not sure there was ever a more trenchant subject of Johnss work than himself, despite his protestations.

The museums are equal partners in the endeavor, and passages of each exhibition are directly related. They are parallel in that one doesnt pick up where the other does; they work both together and alone. Although I have only seen the New York portion, my own impression is less incomplete than particular (Flag, 1954-55, Johnss first-ever flag painting, made in New Jersey and owned by the Museum of Modern Art a few dozen blocks uptown, hangs at the entrance to the Philadelphia show). But you could see either or both and leave sated, and with a fresher perception of an artist whose inscrutability has been viewed as he/she pursues.

Johns, who never trained as an artist, had an intuitive sense of what made art, art: a method to make the comfortable strange, often with the deftest of nudges. In American art, he traces so many historic moments: when a South Carolina man returned to New York in 1953 following his discharge from the Army, his work with signs, symbols, and everyday objects regenerated Dadaism and presaged pop and conceptual art at once; if Abstract Expressionism, by then weighing down under the weight of its own self-importance, would be left in the dust, it would become dreadful.

Even Andy Warhol, whose footprint here and in Philadelphia underscores his quietly imposing presence, only visited the Whitney for his own retrospective in 2018, in these same galleries, though he could have easily roamed to every museum in the city. Johns hasnt had a major retrospective here or elsewhere since 1996, at the Museum of Modern Art; Warhols been framed and reframed so many times since his death, freshness is always elusive, though museums are always up for securing marquee value. Mind/Mirror is a rare art-historical blockbuster in which the artist is an active participant, yet Johns, 91, is still working at his Connecticut studio.

I'd like to think that may be why Mind/Mirror is so jarringly personal for an artist who for years has been at once ubiquitous and unknowable, his symbology both seductive and effective. Johns himself appears to have finally emerged from behind iconographic Americana entangled with the politics of anti-jingoism for which hes so well-known (as any artist whove done so will tell you, touching with a flag inevitably triggers ugly debate).

Certaines portions of the show are very intimate. Four pieces bleedheartache appear in a chapter of the exhibition titled Disappearance and Negation. Johns made them in the aftermath of his split with his romantic partner of seven years, the artist Robert Rauschenberg, whom he met just months after arriving in New York. Rauschenberg, a virtuoso in dozens of materials and techniques, was revolutionizing the art world with his mash-ups that combined painting, screen printing, and sculpture as one. Johns was revered by him, calling him the first true artist I ever knew.

Rauschenbergs early works are surprisingly autobiographical: Liar, 1961, an inky patch of metal skinned with dark encaustic; Good Time Charley, 1962, with a tin cup overturned on an ashen surface trailing an arc of paint, referring to his easy, glad-handing charm. In the visceralPainting Bitten by a Man, 1961, pale tooth marks are etched into the waxy gray surface. Johns frequently used encaustic, and may be its most revered practitioner, employing its fleshy surface as a textural counterpoint to his otherwise-ordinary symbols. Theres no formal mystery to it: it merely pain.

Pain, of course, was more the turf of his AbEx predecessors, whose tortured paintings bled with a deliberate angst. Johns, I always thought, was a subtle force, coolly bending familiar symbols back on themselves to destabilize simple meaning. The Whitney is an excellent example. One large gallery is filled with famous maps and flags: pieces dominated by dark grays and blacks on one wall, brightly-colored works on the other.

The space is capped by the towering White Flag, from 1955. Its always been a ghostly monument for me, capturing fading optimism as postwar euphoria crumbled into national anxiety in the midst of an escalating Cold War and rising racial tensions. Johns, of course, shrugged off any such topicality with its thick swaths of translucent wax covering gray newsprint beneath, the piece was no more about a flag than it is about brush stroke or color or the physicality of the paint, he once stated, because of necessity. To put political or emotional intent on the work would betrayer himself as a human in the world, and that would never happen.

Johns had abandoned outright feeling in his work a year or two earlier, when, upon arriving in New York in 1953, he met Rauschenberg and shortly after destroyed everything. In Rauschenberg's company, he connected with the city' gay avant-garde, particularly the choreographer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage, who were also redefining their respective media and laying the foundations for a nascent art world where the silos of the various orthodoxies painting and sculpture, performance and music - would all bleed into each other. In that moment, art would be remade by subverting form and material, structure and discipline; feeling was outdated and quaint.

And yet, there are cracks in the armor, and "Mind/Mirror" explores them deeply. An entire gallery is dedicated to Johnss 1961 retreat to South Carolina, where he bought a home and settled in to work through his broken heart. Famous works here show the artists formal inventiveness Studio, 1964, the Whitney s first Johns acquisition, dangles a string of paint cans from octagonal corners, while 'a door', askew, breaks the canvas' plane and anchors it in the real world.

Johns, whether by choice or not, found himself also moored in the real world. In his self-exile, he composed works on the Gullah Geechee people, descendants of African slaves with a rich heritage in the area, as well as pieces that touch on his queer identity and tie to the work of his friend, the poet Frank OHara. In Memory of My Feelings: Frank OHara, 1961, is alive with ache a spectral flag in ashen gray roughed up with paint scrabbles, oxbows and spoons hanging on tinsel.

Finally, youll come to the other end of the opening exhibition, where more recent works that explore mortality, connection, and the cosmic (the final section, Dreams, is often quite touching, the artist grappling with dark visions). There is, quite evidently, a lot more to it than meets the eye. But Mind/Mirror seeks for balance between the inscrutable and the unthinkable, between thought and feeling. For a long time, the art world orthodoxy split into either/or. Mind/Mirror sways between the two, but dont we all? It is both structured and messy, but it also feels whole.

MIND/MIRROR JASPER JOHNS Through Feb. 13 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort St., New York, N.Y. 212-570-3600,; and through Feb 13 in the Philadelphia Museum Of Art at 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. 215-763-8100,, 213-563-8299,

Murray Whyte is available at Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte

You may also like: