Jasper Johns Short-Circuits Popular Perception Works by This Giant of 20th-Century Art Introduce New Ways of Seeing

Article excerpt

'I personally would like to keep the painting in a state of 'shunning statement,' " Jasper Johns has said of his work, "so that the experience of it is variable."

In "Jasper Johns: A Retrospective" at the Museum of Modern Art, this giant of 20th-century art has achieved his goal of willed ambiguity. The 225 paintings, works on paper, and sculptures from 1954 to 1995 guard their secrets like a combination lock awaiting a safe-cracker.

An ideal review of his now-you-see-it-now-you-don't art would be a blank page wherein viewers record their own impressions. That's because Johns tweaks the mind to short-circuit habits of perception. He forces each viewer to encounter an image afresh. In his early work, Johns painted public symbols like flags, targets, and numbers - things seen so often they become almost invisible. Instead of inventing an original design, he focused, he said, on "things the mind already knows," which "are seen and not looked at, not examined." "Target with Four Faces" (1955) occupies a middle ground between the known and the new. Painted in encaustic (a mixture of pigment and wax) over strips of newspaper, the gummy surface shows the work to be a laboriously hand-painted representation. Yet because the target occupies the whole canvas, one wonders if it is the thing depicted rather than a depiction. Topped by a box with plaster casts of half-faces (visible when a hinged door is open), the painting suggests a private world hidden behind the public exterior. The target paintings, like Johns's flags that inhabit an indeterminate zone between flag and picture, "can be both and still be neither," the artist has said. Sometimes his works' titles, like "Arrive/Depart" directly refer to this coming-and-going state of flux. Viewers, take your time Because his works are densely layered with both ideas and images, viewers shouldn't expect to breeze through the show in less than two hours. It's like an incomplete game of "Clue," where a trail of tips leads towards resolution. Take "False Start" (1959), where the title gives some entre into the painting's mystery. Brushy strokes splash across the canvas in a parody of Abstract Expressionist excess. Your mind is off and running. Then Johns zaps you with an aesthetic jolt. (No mental torpor allowed here!) The names of colors on the patches of paint are a false lead; the name "red" is stenciled in orange over a burst of yellow. Instead of crossing the finish line to arrive at Meaning, you're back scratching your head at the starting block. "According to What" (1964) makes explicit (if anything about Johns's art can be called explicit) the artist's mantra of multiplicity. The title subverts the possibility of a single point of view, asking how (according to what perspective) does one meld all the disparate parts into a whole? In mixed media and mixed metaphors, Johns explores the subject of disjunction. Disparate objects like a twisted coat hanger and an inverted wooden chair thwart our ability to perceive facilely. "One wants to be able to use all of one's faculties, when one looks at a picture," Johns has said. …