Major Jasper Johns Show Plays Both Philly and NYC

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday October 6, 2021

A woman observes Jasper Johns' painting, "Flag"
A woman observes Jasper Johns' painting, "Flag"  (Source:Associated Press)

Postponed for more than a year because of the pandemic, the Mind/Mirror, the most complete retrospective of pioneering American abstract expressionist Jasper Johns, opens simultaneously at The Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Whitney Museum in New York this week.

The project has been in the works for over five years, and is comprised by over 500 works by Johns — 95 of which have been rarely seen — and recent canvases by the 91-year-old artist. Several of the pieces representative of current work from the artist and the breathtaking range of his work that spans seven decades.

The show is curated by Carlos Basualdo (at PMA) and Scott Rothkopf (at the Whitney).

Philadelphia director Timothy Rub and Whitney director Adam Weinberg spoke of the extraordinary cooperation of museums and private collectors in putting together this most complete retrospective of Johns' career.

Weinberg noted the expansive Mind/Mirror project was a "five-year process between the institutions," and cited Basualdo and Rothkopf as being "Two of the finest curatorial minds of our time." They bring their unique perspective to the two-part exhibit "to freshly examine for a new generation the now 65-year career of Jasper Johns." It is, indeed, a comprehensive survey of the artist's work, theories, cultural impact, and legacy

Johns was very much a part of the process of putting together a cohesive and expansive exhibit of his life's work. Weinberg noted that they visited his studios and, with him, evaluated artwork he had in private storage, which met the artistic goals of the two-part exhibit.

Carlos Basualdo commented that "the logistics of an enterprise of this magnitude... during the pandemic, was quite challenging indeed. The process was long and wasn't always easy." That is an understatement; the scheduling, with over 90 lenders, had to be rearranged because of the pandemic.

To achieve the scale of the exhibit those logistics including scheduling the loans from other museums, private collections, works in storage and all of the curatorial research to represent the scope of concepts, aesthetic and impact of Johns work that has changed the contemporary art world.

Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns  (Source: Associated Press)

In 2013, at PMA, Basualdo also curated "Dancing around the Bride" exhibit, which included performances by The Merce Cunningham Dance Company of works performed in the galleries, with artworks by Johns and Marcel Duchamp. Jasper Johns was artistic adviser, as well as designing sets and costumes for the Cunningham Company at the height of their international fame.

In Philadelphia there is a room of pieces from Johns' first show at the famed Leo Castelli gallery in New in the late '50s. Johns was living with his lover, fellow artist Robert Rauschenberg, at the time. The legend goes that Castelli, the most successful dealer in New York, was visiting Rauschenberg's studio to discuss an upcoming exhibit, but when he saw Johns artwork he immediately offered to exhibit them in his gallery.

Just as compelling are the rooms that showcase Johns' later-career figurative works, a series of ghostly and skeletal drawings.

In contrast, and equally captivating, are the cryptic puzzles of Johns' "Numbers" series of geometric matrix canvases, some in vibrant rainbow colors, others with micro images with the colors bled out. Phantom digits appear on cubist fields that come into focus at different angles.

Another group of paintings called "False Starts" are kinetic abstracts of colors in motion, achieved through sculptural streams of clotted paint.

The Philadelphia exhibit explores Johns' visionary artistry and indelible craft. Including paintings, metalworks, mixed genre work, encasement canvases, metalworks, painted sculpture, and invented forms, John's aesthetic is both specific and borderless. The curators noted that there is also an indefinable mystique to Johns' work that eludes categorization or description.

Some of Johns' most celebrated and controversial pieces are on display at PMA, including the famous twin painted sculptures of Ballentine beer cans and perhaps his most resonant piece, the "mirroring" twin American Flags, a canvas of encaustic oils on fabric mounted on wood stacked on each other, but with micro differences on each canvas.

Both museums have had long exhibited Johns' work, but the scale of the combined retrospective is unprecedented. Ideally, they hope that people will see both the Philadelphia and Whitney exhibits to be able to take in the full scope of the exhibit.

But for those who are able to see one part of it, it is still a chance to see a broad range of Johns' work. "Basically, what we wanted to create was an exhibition, that by its very structure, tells you something about the artwork," Basualdo says, citing Johns as "the most inspirational artist of the 20th century and beyond."

Philadelphia Museum of Art & The Whitney Museum in New York concurrent exhibit, "Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror"- Sept. 29- February 13, 2022 For more on the Philadelphia exhibit, follow this link. For more on the New York City exhibit, follow this link.

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.