Jasper Johns: Gray

By Welish, Marjorie | Art Monthly, April 2008 | Go to article overview

Jasper Johns: Gray


Welish, Marjorie, Art Monthly


Jasper Johns: Gray The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York February 5 to May 4

Originating at the Art Institute of Chicago, this is a fascinating exhibition, not only for fanatics but also for sceptics with a genuine interest in studious painting. A retrospective with a focus, 'Jasper Johns: Gray' shows the artist at work, which for him is a deliberative process concerning the mark and its relation to literal pigment on one hand and virtual representation on the other. Since the beginning of his career the semantic meaning of the mark through kinds and degrees of re-presentation has been an abiding concern; so the tonal spectrum of grey indicates.

Fundamental to understanding Johns's art is his orientation in the conventional nature of colour, a received cultural sense that prevails over optical phenomena. Thus the exhibition begins by pairing False Start with Jubilee, both from 1959. Paintings done in all-over abstract expressionist brushwork made standard, these canvases are structurally the same while differing in palette: red, yellow, blue in the first instance; black, white and grey in the second instance. A curatorial masterstroke, this pairing at once orients the viewers as to what they need to know on entering into the artistic mentality of Johns and establishes a point of reference for how to interpret the show, which dilates on grey as a convention and as more besides.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Relative to the polemic of black and white, grey is the zone of the in-between states of affairs, and of the slippage of sense by which the object being named remains elusive--even its spelling ranges between North America and Britain. This zone of signification remains one of Johns's preoccupations, and utilising grey calligraphic strokes to elide the difference between flat canvas and sculptural object by virtue of any common utensil hanging off it or anything inserted is one way that he teases the categories called drawing, painting and sculpture. The exhibition gathers a generous sample of the early artefacts from the 50s and 60s which, together with Robert Rauschenberg's own bold practice then, derive their authority from challenging the key terms of Abstract Expressionism with sharp counter-examples to expose flaws in the aesthetic polemic. What remains salient is that in so doing, Johns (and Rauschenberg) made a heretical claim: that pictorial art with its extra-curricular subjects and concerns could usurp the authority of pure painting. The 'colour' grey has much to do with changing the nature of the (linguistic) game from the New York School's subjective expression to an objective semiotics and neutral cultural stance.

Given the importance of technique for Johns in constructing sense (and in deconstructing meaning), one welcomes the opportunity to scrutinise how the works were made. Much has been written on what one can see being played directly, as against what one must surmise by virtue of a thing's being hidden, and the material aspect of knowledge by experience versus knowledge by acquaintance being in full view. …

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