"Jasper Johns: Gray"
The first exhibition of Jasper Johns’s work to be organized around a single color, “Jasper Johns: Gray,” thoroughly explores his use of what became his signature hue across the material and conceptual spectrum of painting, drawing, print making and sculpture. Strangely enough, by limiting the scope of the presentation to what would seem to be the most boring “noncolor” imaginable, many of the works seemed newly vibrant.
Even stranger and more exhilarating, however, are the moments in which Johns uses the cover of gray to make himself known right under our noses. Arguably no other artist of the 20th century has made his or her absence such a tantalizing presence as Johns.
Two paintings—False Start and Jubilee—set up the show perfectly. By jumping to 1959, when gray took hold of Johns’s mind, the opening gallery is itself a false start. The first painting is a mind bender. Its choppy clumps of scrubbed brushstrokes not only goof on Abstract Expressionism, but play name games—a gray clump near the upper left corner, for example, is labeled “RED” in orange paint. Jubilee is False Start’s coy foil: On its surface all of the descriptive names positioned on the latter have gone black, white and gray without losing the power of its peculiar combination of exuberance and restraint.
The next few galleries take us through the best-known motifs of Johns’s career that were established in the mid-1950s. There are the flags, targets and numbers that he has made his own, giving this part of the show a bit of overkill—notwithstanding the obvious goal of demonstrating just how much Johns has stuck to his guns. More provocative are paintings that also seem to be painted gray to “trap” actual objects (a drawer, a newspaper or another smaller canvas). This is reinforced in a series of small sculptures, especially the brick-size The Critic Sees that entombs the casts of two talking mouths behind eyeglasses, showing us that Johns can throw shade with the best of them.
Just when enough seems enough, we land in 1961, the year of his discontent. Wall text explains this was “the year that Johns’s influential relationship with the artist Robert Rauschenberg dissolved.” We hardly need the information to know that Johns was upset (he himself has said “the mood changes”). Three modestly sized works from the year hold nothing back: Liar may have started as a study for an unrealized work, but it’s a mouthful despite being nothing more than a gray rectangle; and even though Water Freezes includes a working thermometer that shows us it’s above freezing, it’s still damn cold.
Without gray, much of Johns’s work since the early ’60s would be so much less, starting with paintings dedicated to poets Frank O’Hara and Hart Crane, continuing with the almost operatic life-size drawing Diver and ending with “action” paintings like Fool’s House (complete with the broom that was swept across its surface). The same can’t be said for the ’70s and ’80s: These works don’t hold gray nearly as well. Winter—one of a set of paintings of the seasons—contains far too much, including a clunky image of Johns’s shadow. Finally showing himself as a gray ghost, he’s lost in the shuffle.
The last gallery shows Johns returning to form, gathering steam with a remarkably agile set of paintings from the past decade that reestablish gray as a dominant idea. By enabling lengths of string to “accept” gravity and take the shape of a catenary arch in front of their surfaces, they demonstrate that Johns is best when the things he wants to show us read as utterly inevitable.