Mind games

Greater minds than yours have pondered the nuances, subtleties, and mysteries of Jasper Johns' groundbreaking artwork over his 50-year career; a couple of them work at the Dallas Museum of Art, and another was hustled in to help explain the American master's latest exhibition of new paintings and drawings installed in the DMA's South Quadrant galleries. It's usually enough, many art lovers say, simply to look at art and respond to it in any way you choose. The art elite would urge you to do some research on the artist and his or her work before you view it. The populist approach to art works for Jasper Johns--you will find some way to relate to it without much study, but every shred of insight you can take with you to the DMA will help you enjoy it, marvel at it, and still leave you with an unsettling feeling that you have no idea what you've just seen.

The DMA's curator of contemporary art Charles Wylie is one of the local Johns experts, and so is his assistant Suzanne Weaver. Wylie recently spoke about the painter for friends of the DMA and enlisted the help of internationally respected curator and art scholar Joachim Pissarro. Pissarro lately has ties to Texas. He's working on his doctorate at the University of Texas, and he worked for a time as the chief curator of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. He was acclaimed during his Kimbell tenure for curating the traveling exhibition Monet and the Mediterranean, a gorgeous assemblage of Monet's light studies. Pissarro, whose art pedigree includes being legendary artist Camille Pissarro's great-grandson, strove to find and secure for exhibition several dozen examples of Monet's tedious and repetitive paintings, wherein the master painted the same scenes throughout the day to explore and capture the changing light. Pissarro hung the related paintings together in groups of four or five, revealing to even the most artless lay-viewer how obsessed and innovative Monet and his fellow Impressionists could be.

Now, Pissarro works for the Yale University Art Center in New Haven, Connecticut, and maintains close ties to the major New York City museums. He has cultivated a relationship with Jasper Johns, who turned 70 on May 15; Pissarro has access to the art genius where many others do not. Johns is notoriously interview-shy, so Pissarro's insight into the artist's work and life can add a layer of interest to any viewer's perusal of the current DMA show. The fact that Jasper Johns ducks from art critics and journalists is probably an instinct for self-protection. Those who know him, including Pissarro, say he--like his work--is something of an enigma. Pissarro says Johns has inspired "endless speculation and dialogue" in art circles, and perhaps two-thirds of the fun of looking at this work is the compulsion to speculate. What is Johns trying to say? What does his use of objects--both real objects stuck onto the canvas or trompe l'oeil painted object--mean? What's up with the incessant use of gray--and the hyper-animated brush strokes? Why did he paint his famous "Flag" in 1959, only to revisit and revise it in 1964 in "In Memory of My Feelings Frank O'Hara" as a gray, blurry, vague and emptied carcass of its former self? Why, in his new work, does he want you to feel as if you're standing behind his paintings, looking out? Don't see this show alone. People will wonder why you're talking out loud to yourself in a museum.

Jasper Johns appeared on the New York art scene in 1955, a friend, studio mate, and contemporary of Robert Rauschenberg. He was grouped with the "pop art" movement of the day; his "Flag" and "Target With Plaster Casts" are legendary examples of the artist's use of encaustic (heated wax with oil paint), collage, wood construction, plaster, and various media. Johns experimented with representations of objects that were so precisely and neutrally executed as to become objects themselves. In these earliest works, Johns is credited with shaping attitudes about contemporary art. In the 1960s, Johns' paintings became rife with Expressionist brush strokes; in the '70s, he integrated his now-familiar stenciled letters and numbers with abstract gray fields. In the '80s, Johns' work became more melancholy, and the artist seemed to be revisiting earlier themes and ideas as if he had something more--or very different--to express. In the '90s, as featured at the DMA, Johns is still recasting, revisiting, and re-interpreting his work and aspects of his life he seems hell-bent to reveal.

Pissarro says of the many recurring themes in Johns' work, one important idea is his "game" of representing and misrepresenting objects. Wylie says, referencing the two very different flag paintings in Johns' history, that the artist's "notion of a symbol that is no longer acting as it had" was the intent. "It's always been said that Robert Rauschenberg was the great 'yes' of contemporary art and Jasper Johns was the great 'no,'" Wylie says. "Rauschenberg brought in the world to his art while Johns said, 'No, don't bring the world in.'" Wylie also points out that some of Johns' canvases have divided elements--type that starts on the left and ends, broken, on the right, for example--that suggest Johns wants the viewer to consider the canvas unmounted and curled into a cylinder shape. "Do not stay glued on your feet," Pissarro advises visitors to the DMA galleries. "Move around in front of these paintings. Go to one side or the other to see a completely different work. Go inside. Go behind."

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.

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Annabelle Massey Helber