Thursday, February 01, 2007

jasper johns at the NGA

Jasper Johns, Target With Four Faces (1955)the jasper johns show that went up on sunday at the national gallery offers a lot of food for thought about the nature of art, objects and representation. not a retrospective, this is a focused, formalist look at four specific motifs johns worked through over just the first ten years of his career: the target, the mechanical device used in his painting process, stenciled color names, and the body. the subtitle of the show, "an allegory of painting," suggests, if we are to take it literally, that each of these motifs enables johns to essentially tell a story about painting.

i'll have to give this some more thought, which i'm doing along with a reading of his interviews and sketchbook notes published in conjunction with the 1996 johns retrospective at the MOMA. but i'm not sure that each of these motifs offers an equally compelling "allegory of painting." clearly the targets and the stenciled color names are fascinating to the degree that they are (and are not) what they depict. johns is playing "signification games" that owe a lot to wittgenstein (whom as it turns out he was reading at the time); these devices seem to me like tools that johns uses to explore certain ideas and issues and then, like wittgenstein's ladder, disposes of when they are no longer of use i.e. have helped him reach a place that he needed to get to. blake gopnik literally gushes about johns in this sunday's washington post arts section, something he is rarely given to do in my infrequent readings of him. (i found it a pleasant coincidence his assertion of johns' "pictorial intellegence" relative to my recent listenings for "poetic intelligence.") i'm not sure, for example, how much johns really adds to, rather than simply reiterates (perhaps in a new context), the essential moves of duchamp. gopnik ultimately wants to make johns a comic genius along the lines of buster keaton; certainly this element is there, but it doesn't strike me as being of the essence. just in the targets alone, that body of work, i find a serial insistence that is methodically working through some serious issues. if it was just "giddy inventiveness" that compelled you to run versions of the same "joke" over and over, the work to me would get tired pretty quickly.

note: this show close at the end of april 2007 and goes from there to the kunstmuseum basel. (susana!) also, what look to be some interesting concerts and film screenings in conjunction with this show. performances of what appear to be violin sonatas by elliott carter and roger sessions (feb 18); piano music cage, feldman, ives and nancarrow (february 25); and ensemble music by cage (march 4). films related to johns and his milieu -- cunningham, cage, rauschenberg, brakhage, leslie (march 10) -- and documentaries on cage and carter (march 24).

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