Exhibit of the week
Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth
The Broad, Los Angeles, through May 13
“Puzzling over Jasper Johns is one of the greater pleasures of American modern art,” said Peter Plagens in The Wall Street Journal. That’s because the 87-year-old legend has always mixed conceptual cleverness with masterful painterly effects, producing art that “combines the best of both head and hand.” Working in a deadpan mode, Johns replicates familiar symbols—targets, numerals, the American flag—to create canvases that smuggle in subtle art-history allusions. An all-white target painting, for example, coats bits of newspaper (a 17th-century technology) in wax-based encaustic (an ancient Egyptian medium) that’s applied with a “quite Cezanne-esque” brushstroke. An alertness to “the treachery of images,” as René Magritte put it, informs all of Johns’ sculpture and painting, and though this exhibition scatters his peak-era work, it’s still a wonderful show focused on an artist who’s “a genius at what he does.”
Besides, “there is a method to the thematic organization,” said Richard Chang in LA Weekly. The flag paintings come first here, and seeing a “showstopper” like 1958’s Three Flags together with its brethren reinforces the sorts of Magritte-ean questions it was meant to a raise: “Is it a flag? Or a painting of a flag? Is it art?” Johns’ 1960s “Numbers” paintings are “among his strongest, most effective works.” In 0 Through 9 (1961), all 10 digits are overlaid on top of one another, and seeing the spatial and linear connections between them “becomes something of a revelation.” Other galleries reveal the philosophical bent of this great American artist: The four paintings in his 1985–86 “Seasons” series each feature a silhouette of a man who appears to be journeying through time in a landscape strewn with symbols and artifacts.
“Seasons” arrived when Johns’ work was going through a “bit of a rough patch,” said Christopher Knight in the Los Angeles Times. After a long run of wry, layered challenges to art’s pretensions, Johns’ paintings “took a deeply inward, almost claustrophobic turn” in the mid-1980s. About 20 years ago, though, the artist cleared the decks again and began producing “large, elegant, uncluttered” paintings that each glory in the curve of a single piece of string fastened to opposite sides of the frame. Shadows cast by the string “traverse the painting, establishing a gentle tension between the flatness of a canvas and the reality of curved space in Einstein’s universe.” Johns repeats the line in paint, suggesting that art might be more ghost than object. These masterful late paintings, “still undersung in Johns’ copious repertoire” provide “a powerful conclusion to a blissful show.”