Mind games

Caution: Irreversible brain scramble is a potential side effect of Jasper Johns' latest at the DMA

Pissarro's admonition to go behind or inside is not literal. He's describing the feeling Johns seems to want to convey in several of his new paintings in the "Bridge" series on view at the DMA. In "Bridge, 1997," your first impression of the large canvas is that it's a representation of a framed blackboard. A messy, textured field of gray seems to represent patterns an old-fashioned chalk eraser could have left on a chalk board. The wood-grained frame around the gray field looks to be actual wood. The artist depicts a Milky-Way styled galaxy in a small rectangle near the top of the canvas and, near it, another small painting of the "Big Dipper" with the image upside-down. A narrow, vertical panel with a harlequin print of interlocking diamond shapes in various colors runs down the right side of the piece, as does an actual piece of wood that Pissarro says is a stretcher bar--part of the wooden frame that artists stretch canvases on. So with this information, you begin to see the painting as stretched canvas on a wooden frame; and, you appear to be standing behind the painting, looking out. Across the entire canvas is a delicately sloping painted string that is mounted high on the top right and swoops down to the lower left corner. A primitive drawing of a rag or handkerchief is etched in white near the center left of the painting, held in place by a trompe-l'oeil nail. Pissarro says one New York reviewer who wrote about Johns' latest work from slides without seeing the actual painting believed the nail was real--and wrote that the artist, true to his previous use of real objects over painted ones, used a nail in the painting.

Three of Johns' new paintings reference the term "catenary" and make use of the image of a sloping string--always at different angles and with different degrees of droop. Pissarro says the catenary is a term in physics that describes aspects of a suspension bridge. Wylie says the artist is exploring the idea of equilibrium. Wylie says Johns' ideas and iconography "ricochet off one another" in this exhibit. He urges viewers to go back and forth among the works to experience this phenomenon. "What is phenomenal about Johns," Pissarro says, "is the fact that he makes the viewers actively participate in what he is doing."

Pissarro has written a very telling essay for the "New Paintings and Works on Paper" show catalog and shared a great deal of insight into Johns' work and the artist's long and respected career. In writing about Johns' penchant for linkages, reflections, distortions, and transformations, he repeats an often-quoted statement the artist made in a rare interview back in the 1960s. Pissarro says Johns remarked, "I am concerned with a thing's not being what it was, with its becoming something other than what it is, with any moment in which one identifies a thing precisely and with the slipping away of that moment, with at any moment seeing or saying and letting it go at that." Put that in your pipe and smoke it, you would-be and established Jasper Johns fans. Don't let anyone tell you you're not smart enough to figure this guy out.

A view from the other side: Jasper Johns' "Bridge, 1997"
A view from the other side: Jasper Johns' "Bridge, 1997"
A view from the other side: Jasper Johns' "Bridge, 1997"
A view from the other side: Jasper Johns' "Bridge, 1997"


(214) 922-1200
Through August 13

Dallas Museum of Art,
1717 N. Harwood

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