Is It A Painting Or A Flag?

I brought a dear friend for her first visit to the Broad Museum downtown to see the blockbuster Jasper Johns survey, “Something Resembling Truth.” We had a chance to see the newly installed Yayoi Kusama LED light-and-mirror room (“Longing for Eternity”), which you look through a porthole to experience.

We also immersed ourselves in the eye-tripping walk-in Infinity Mirrored Room, “The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away,” and viewed the permanent collection featuring Jeff Koons, El Anatsui, Anselm Kiefer, Roy Lichtenstein, Barbara Kruger, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kara Walker, Takashi Murakami and so many more.

When we left, though, she said, “I don’t understand why he painted targets and numbers and flags,” the works from his early career that most identify Johns in the public eye. (He claims the original vision of painting a flag came to him in a dream.)

So, I started asking why, too. And I began to read the catalog and other materials about Jasper Johns. His early work focused on common objects that we’re all familiar with (like the flag, targets, maps, and numerals) partly as a reaction to the abstract expressionist drip and action paintings epitomized by Jackson Pollock and gestural lines of Willem de Kooning.

Influenced by Dadaist Marcel Duchamp (who in 1917 famously displayed one of his “ready-mades,” a porcelain urinal titled “Fountain” by “R. Mutt”), and connecting with the 1950s/60s New York avant-garde, including composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and his own romantic partner, artist/collagist Robert Rauschenberg, gave Johns a new focus, in which he examines the boundaries between art and the real world.

Art academic Robert Storr writes in the catalog that “no living American artist has both fascinated and frustrated his public longer than Jasper Johns.” But he helped lay the groundwork for Pop Art, Conceptual Art, the Post-Modern movement, and was instrumental in giving birth to performance art.

Understand and appreciate what he’s doing or not, he’s been extremely influential in contemporary American art history. Could there have been an Andy Warhol without him?

These early works are iconic; it’s exciting to see them in person. But I was not familiar with Johns’ mid- and late-career works, many of which I found even more visually appealing, especially the latest works, which look like they were made by an entirely different artist. A little colorful and abstract, a little biomorphic, a little dreamlike, a little representational — I’m no academic but this is how my brain translated what my eyes saw.

In 1943, Barnett Newman, Adolph Gottlieb, and Mark Rothko wrote a famous letter in which they state, “It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way, not his way.”

But Jasper Johns said he sought to “paint the things the mind already knows,” and for him, it’s not just what’s on the canvas but what goes into the making of it. In the flag and target paintings especially, Johns layers encaustic (wax), paint and shreds of newspaper to build up his canvases and create a textured surface that you can almost see through.

Maybe the approach is more cerebral than emotional, but Jasper Johns aims to set up a dialogue with the viewer, in which we bring our own interpretations, feelings, and responses to these works. What does a target represent? Is a number on a canvas a number or a painting? What does an American flag mean to you? How does it look to the rest of the world (especially now)? He doesn’t answer but leads you to question, react and engage with the work.

There’s far more to see and analyze than I have space to write about, but don’t miss the piece inspired by poet Hart Crane’s suicide (Periscope, 1962), in which we see an image of Johns’ own hand, memorializing the report of Crane reaching above the waves as he sank. Johns was breaking up with Rauschenberg at the time and this painting is often interpreted as a reflection of his mood.

There are also examples of his brightly colored crosshatch paintings and of his common object sculptures, bronzed coffee cans, flashlights, glasses and of his lithographic works. As surveys go this one is mighty comprehensive.

“Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth” is at The Broad through May 13, the exclusive US showing of this exhibition. Tickets are timed and must be reserved or you can take your chances in the standby line. For more info visit https://ticketing.thebroad.org.

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.

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