The Inflation of Jasper Johns

By Gibson, Eric | The World and I, March 1997 | Go to article overview
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The Inflation of Jasper Johns

Gibson, Eric, The World and I

Vast retrospectives have become the norm, even when unwarranted. Witness the touring Jasper Johns show.

Is size the measure of the artist these days? Or to put it another way, if a major museum is organizing a retrospective exhibition of a prominent painter or sculptor, one who has made his or her way into all the history books, does it have to be vast, lest the public conclude that a smaller show is a reflection of the artist's lesser importance?

One would certainly think so. Since at least 1980, when New York's Museum of Modern Art devoted every square inch of its permanent collection and temporary exhibition galleries to its landmark Picasso retrospective, it has seemed that anything less than gargantuan scale in the public reckoning of an artist would be considered an act of curatorial lese-majeste. One exhibition after another has been bone-crushingly large, most recently the touring Winslow Homer retrospective, as well as last summer's exhibition of Picasso portraits organized (again) by the Museum of Modern Art, a two-hundred-work show whose curator, William Rubin, publicly stated he would have liked to have made it at least twice as large.

There was a perfectly good reason for the 1980 Picasso retrospective to be as large as it was. It was the first time scholars had access to the artist's complete oeuvre in the wake of his death and the settlement of his estate. Paintings, sculptures, and drawings previously kept out of sight by the artist, or even unknown, could at last be seen with all the more familiar work. We are still assimilating the enormous flood of information unleashed by that exhibition.

But what was once the exception has now become the rule, as exhibition upon exhibition is conceived in Brobdingnagian scale. This is done more as an exercise in public relations than anything else. It is a means of attracting the public's attention and boosting attendance. It is also a way to stroke egos, primarily those of the the collectors, who want to be able to say, when they put their works up for sale at Sotheby's, that they were included in this or that important show. Also the artist's ego. Don't forget that artists are immensely competitive with one another, and if X feels he isn't getting as big an exhibition as Y had at the same institution (Y being a far lesser artist in the eyes of X), then X may not cooperate. It is just one more way in which the art world increasingly resembles Hollywood.

The latest beneficiary of this curatorial inflation is Jasper Johns, whose 225-work retrospective opened at the Museum of Modern Art last autumn and comes this month to Cologne. Along with the major exhibition, MoMA showed a Johns print retrospective. And in addition to the now customary 400-page-plus catalog, the museum published a complete anthology of Johns' interviews, notes, and writings, and--also separately--a complete bibliography. The star treatment. But then, with this artist 'twas ever thus.

Early Sensation

Johns burst on the New York art scene in 1958 with his first solo show at the Leo Castelli Gallery. His show caused a sensation, placing him on the cover of ARTnews and sending Alfred Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art, rushing to the gallery to buy three paintings for the museum. Even today that would be an extraordinary coup for an emerging artist. Forty years ago, it was all but unthinkable.

On view were what have since become Johns' signature works and icons of postwar American art: paintings of targets, flags, and numbers. They were so deadpan and so literally and figuratively down-to-earth that it was as though somebody had turned on the lights and turned off the music at the Abstract Expressionist party. What could be more basic and mundane than a flag or a target, or a row of numbers? Johns' paintings were both enigmatic and straightforward (Okay, it's a flag, but what does it mean?) in a way that mirrored the work of Marcel Duchamp, an artist Johns had recently discovered and who was to play an increasingly important role in his life.

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