This is produced in partnership with The Broad, home to the 2,000 works of art in the Eli and Edythe Broad collection, which is among the most prominent holdings of postwar and contemporary art worldwide, and presents an active program of rotating temporary exhibitions and innovative audience engagement.
… How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty --
Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
-- Till elevators drop us from our day …
Hart Crane, "To Brooklyn Bridge”, 1933.
Jasper Johns showed his first Target and Flag paintings at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1958, when he was just 28 years old. Everything else he’s done in his 60-plus year career came after that salvo; and while his later incursions into the sculpture/painting fray were arguably more engaged with art history and by no means limited in concept, style or medium to their sphere, the indelible impact of those early paintings secured his legacy in American visual culture — in a way that not only still resonates, but has endured long enough to be coming back around with a fresh context. The American flag and shooting target paintings were not originally about their content; they were experiments in flat space, abstract surfaces and communications via signs and symbols rather than language. This last part — about how symbols replace language — seems now to prefigure the emoji situation and the flat-screen world we live in. Of course, specific inferences have evolved with the zeitgeist, and along with their conceptual commentary on visual culture, these works have taken on a whole new set of meanings in our present-day political climate. All of which makes this new consideration of the 88-year old luminary as fresh and timely as it was 60 years ago — for a whole new set of reasons.
On view February 10 to May 13, 2018, “Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth” is a collaboration with the Royal Academy in London, and brings together some 120 of Jasper Johns’ most important paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings. In part culled from the Broad’s own extensive Johns collection, the exhibition also includes many important works never before exhibited in Los Angeles. Covering all six decades of the artist’s ongoing practice, this is also the first survey of this scale for Johns in the L.A. area since a 1965 show curated by Walter Hopps. In addition to presenting the underlying art historical scholarship, which involves both summarizing conventional understandings and forging new ones, the exhibition also demonstrates a focus on the context of their production, celebrating contemporaneous and subsequent influences in and around Johns’ creative community, and its many presciently interdisciplinary crosscurrents.
Though thought of primarily as a painter, and rightly so, the full array of Johns’ materials and techniques extends to sculptural assemblage, encaustic, printmaking, found objects and interdisciplinary, performative collaborations. The curators describe a “departure from a retrospective approach” in which Johns’ artistic range will be amplified by arranging the works thematically rather than chronologically. Not only a fresh analysis of his iconography itself will be thus illuminated, but as well the arte povera and cross-platform approaches he pioneered — all of which are currently ubiquitous across the contemporary avant-garde. So many artists these days insist on collaborating with poets and dancers and chefs and fashion designers and musicians and filmmakers… and this show leaves no doubt that Johns belongs in those artists’ pantheons. So while in works like “Target” from 1961 and “Flag” from 1967 we see undeniably classic Johns, in “Watchman” from 1964 we see his contemporaneous interests arise in mixed media assemblage and the displacement of pictorial space into the world -- techniques that we now also associate with Rauschenberg — and indeed at the time they were in it together, even living for a time across the hall from each other down on Canal Street.
By the late 1980s and mid-90s, in works like “Summer” 1985, we are looking at more conventionally formatted but still materially exploratory works from Johns, who had begun earnestly using encaustic to create layered paintings that hold their depth and multiple shifting planes within the canvas. The depiction of miniature flag paintings scattered among Mona Lisa and a silhouette on a cinderblock wall that evokes his contemporary Richard Hambleton’s prolific SoHo secret painting practice read almost like a diary of a certain time and place, with self-reflection built-in, in a consideration perhaps of the artist’s place in art history, as well as the contributions of his influences and his contemporaries. Interesting side note: in his later years Rauschenberg too gave up sculpture and began experimenting with layered photographic films, creating translucent millefeuilles years after moving on from assemblage. In these later modes, both artists continued to derive compositional complexity and specific content from the same sets of interests they’d each pursued, but having evolved their aesthetics to create a sense of dimensionality without working sculpturally.
It’s no surprise that Johns has been a pillar of the Broads’ collection since its inception. His work emerged with and has influenced numerous other artists who are also represented in depth, including Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman, Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari and Sherrie Levine. “Eli and Edythe have been collecting the work of Jasper Johns since the mid-1970s,” says Associate Curator Ed Schad. “Johns’ works are among the centerpieces of the collection. Many of the perceptual doors that Johns’ works opened are represented in the work of many artists in our collection, from Pop to conceptual art, to the work of younger artists.” The depth and breadth of Jasper Johns work already in the Broad's permanent collection is indeed impressive, with something seminal from every decade, such as truly does form the curatorial armature of such a survey. And as Johns has continued to produce important work throughout his long career, his influence continues to be felt in new generations of visual artists, and that dynamic will be a primary topic during the opening day conversations, as well as during a newly announced series of public programs across the exhibition’s L.A. run.
Semiotics and high-minded alphanumeric puns are central to Johns’ creative practice, with literary references to his favorite authors, who were often his close friends, being abundant in his paintings and functioning as their titles. The great poet Hart Crane (cited at the top) was just one of the cultural titans in Johns’ creative circle, which included not only other artists, but musicians, writers, dancers, and more — Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, Frank O’Hara, John Cage — all of which is reflected in an energetic and innovative programming series. To explore the role of literature in Johns’ work, The Broad and The Library Foundation of Los Angeles’s ALOUD will present “Unfolding Language,” two nights of contemporary authors and poets like Chris Kraus, Brendan Constantine, Amy Gerstler, and Douglas Kearney, reading from Johns’ own literary muses like Crane, Céline, O’Hara, Samuel Beckett and others, in addition to selections of their own work. Poet Carol Muske-Dukes will further present a one-night public reading for National Poetry Month in April for which her Ph.D students will offer original poems inspired by works in the show.
The Broad programs kick off on opening day with a conversation with Roberta Bernstein, co-curator of the exhibition, and host curators Joanne Heyler, Founding Director of The Broad, and Ed Schad, Associate Curator at The Broad, on February 10. Bernstein published her monumental catalog raisonné of Jasper Johns’ last year, “Redo An Eye,” a complete look at Johns’ entire career which Schad calls, “fresh and authoritative” and which rather forms the basis of the exhibition’s structure. Finally, in addition to the poetry and art history, the museum will host “Cross-Hatched,” a series of three live performances of music, song, and dance films programmed with live accompaniment and the Fluxus spirit. Co-curated and performed by pianist Cage aficionado Adam Tendler.
“At the heart of Johns’ work,” says Schad, “is how a person comes to know and make meaning from what they see in everyday life, especially the images that they may take for granted.” Johns is famous for using the American flag, targets, maps, and numbers — the very kinds of images that we use to communicate almost instinctively. “Getting to know Johns’ work,” Schad concludes, on a profound level really is about “getting to know how we see.”
Top Image: Jasper Johns, Untitled, 1975. Oil and encaustic on canvas (four panels). 50 1/8 x 50 1/8 in. (127.32 x 127.32 cm). The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY