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Jasper Johns: Gray

Post #1155 • April 9, 2008, 10:31 AM • 54 Comments

New York - Jasper Johns: Gray, I predict, will be remembered as one of the biggest visual art bummers of 2008. Never mind that most of the show is the color of dryer lint - worse, it speaks of undeniable but catastrophically tacked-on sincerity. O pendulous broom of time, o yellowing newspaper snippets of memory, o mournful turp can of painting's ambitions - one piece after the next looks like an appeal for unearned serious regard, or at least the interpretive parsing that passes for serious regard in some circles.

In aggregate it becomes clear why Johns got such mileage out of flags and maps - left to his own devices, his compositions tend to revert to wallpaper. When he tries for variation of scale within a work, to make a more picture-like picture, so to speak, he produces downright crazy results. Johns may represent a seminal figure of Pop, but his real legacy is an ouevre of mute art that looks like it is about things, whatever things you bring to it, clearing another way for all manner of lazy wreckage to make claims on artistic greatness and profoundity.




April 9, 2008, 12:31 PM

It's not even good wallpaper.It's just embarassing.


Chris Rywalt

April 9, 2008, 1:23 PM

I mean to write about this show on my blog, but then lately I've meant to write about lots of things and haven't gotten around to it. So I'll say it quickly here.

I went to Johns' show mainly because it was in the next hall after Courbet's. I'd say I didn't like Johns because I was predisposed to disliking it; but then I thought I liked Courbet until I went through his show, and it turns out I don't. So obviously I can revise my opinions in the face of actual work. But my opinion on Johns wasn't revised: I still think he's worthless. Well, maybe if you broke his body down into its constituent chemicals you could get a couple bucks for the carbon, maybe to use in a tube of lamp black for a good painter.

I learned why people like Johns, though. I could see it. He's got a really lovely, painterly brushstroke. He's got a brushstroke that simply screams "I'm a painting! LOVE ME!" The trouble is he has absolutely no idea what to do with his brushstroke. In the very next hallway after Johns is a handful of Matisses which provide perfect counterpoint: Matisse completely and utterly lacks Johns' beautiful touch, and yet one molecule of the paint placed by Matisse has more soul in it than Johns' entire body of work. I'd be willing to bet Van Gogh farted better paintings through his underpants than Johns could manage on his best day.



April 9, 2008, 2:52 PM

Now you all hush! You'll upset the blue-chip fetishists and all manner of major collectors who've paid MAJOR money for this stuff and would look downright retarded if Johns was ever debunked. Think of their reputations, the poor things! Hell, think of the Met's reputation, while you're at it.

Well, I suppose the Met wants a piece of the "relevance" or "up with the times" game lest it be accused of being too stuffy. I mean, Duccio is nice, but it's so, you know, medieval.



April 9, 2008, 3:03 PM

Franklin, I just followed your links, which I suppose I should have done to start with, but my enthusiasm was hardly strong. It's even weaker now, which is saying something. The stuff is worse than I thought. It only works for me (after a fashion) as parody, and I don't think that was JJ's intention. I think OP summed it up pretty nicely in one word: embarrassing.


Chris Rywalt

April 9, 2008, 3:09 PM

Going through the Met into the Modern Art wing and then through that, it's like watching as art is drained of passion. Starting with Warhol, all the art becomes arch, distanced, and empty. Now, Andy came by his disenchantment honestly, as an artistic gay man from a blue-collar family in a cultural backwater. Somehow his attitude, though, became a prescription, and you can watch from there as you walk through the galleries: Lichtenstein, Judd, Close, Freud; Hockney, Kiefer, Guston; eventually Koons and Hirst, and then Tara Donovan. Don't touch humanity except to mock it.



April 9, 2008, 3:22 PM

By the way, just so everybody knows, the Met website says:

Johns has worked in gray, at times to evoke a mood, at other times to evoke an intellectual rigor that results from his purging most color from his works.

There. That takes care of the problem. All you have to do is "get in the mood" or get in touch with your inner intellectual. Derrida would have probably loved this show. Needless to say, those who don't love it are shallow mental midgets. You know, people who like color and other antiquated bourgeois indulgences.

This obviously explains why the sole item in the show that appears to have escaped purging, the 1959 False Start, is such a mess. I'm telling you, JJ knew what he was up to. He was deliberately parodying AbEx. At least I hope so, for his sake.


Chris Rywalt

April 9, 2008, 3:56 PM

I was fairly sure I was a mental midget going in. So it's nice to be sure, now.



April 9, 2008, 5:06 PM

Oh, and Chris, I'm sure van Gogh didn't wear underpants. He was a serious artist. Serious artists eschew such frills. Just like the truly rigorous and truly intellectual eschew the Matisse approach. I mean, it's so decorative and easy. Who wants that? Real art should always be disturbing and make you uncomfortable. Nauseous, preferably.

If you don't believe me, ask Franklin. I'm sure he wouldn't be caught dead in underpants. And OP tells me he wouldn't know underpants from a raincoat.



April 9, 2008, 5:21 PM

C'mon, Chris. Your eye is telling you the right things. Your point about brushstrokes is good. I have often noticed that Johns has a felicitous touch that has nowhere to go, and that Matisse can have a picture full of sloppy areas which just sings.

Matisse hangs on, of course, but I am always surprised how Johns just gets worse and worse. I thought he was pretty slick when I was a kid painter but it started wearing off fast. and I got a jolt how bad the work was when I saw the big Whitney retropspective (late 70s?, 80s?), especially the big colorful things like the US map paintings, and then I saw the cross hatch things somewhere, and the "4 seasons" was it? and now that "wallpaper" thing on the blog here,and it just does down hill.



April 9, 2008, 5:24 PM

Now, Just a MINUTE, Jack....

I put on my raincoat first thing, every morning.



April 9, 2008, 5:36 PM

OP, you just don't understand. I'm an intellectual (or at least I can dress like one), so I know these things. Being blue-chip means never having to get better (assuming you were any good to begin with, which is by no means required).



April 9, 2008, 6:33 PM

I'm sure there must be a Johns painting called "Plastic Mack".



April 9, 2008, 6:50 PM

No, Ahab, that would be Claes Oldenburg. Johns doesn't do fast food. I keep telling you people, he's a Serious Artist.



April 9, 2008, 7:20 PM

And just for the record, my underpants are made of sackcloth. Which may explain my habitually nasty mood, but at least nobody can say that I'm not Serious. I confess I wasn't always so, you know, rigorous--until, of course, I learned to be Not Afraid. Franklin knows what I mean.



April 10, 2008, 6:26 AM

I haven't seen the exhibition and I don't plan on seeing it. I guess this is my statement on the work.



April 10, 2008, 6:47 AM

You guys have nailed it. I used to like Johns, or thought I should, and I think it was the combination of the pretty brush stroke and the seemingly "intellectual" content. I could never really get the work, so of course that meant it was deep.

I'm glad I trust my eyes more now. This stuff seems drained of any real life, dessicated.



April 10, 2008, 7:11 AM

I haven't seen the exhibition and I don't plan on seeing it. I guess this is my statement on the work.

And there you have my review of the Whitney Biennial.



April 10, 2008, 7:42 AM

You folks are being very kind to Jasper Johns about his brushwork. Especially Chris, who seems to have set the tone for a lot of others. Johns' brushwork is rather stiff and lacks the liquidity and fluency that I associate with real painterly painting. His "touch" is quite dead, though literal enough with respect to pushing paint to qualify in the minds of many as "good brushwork" - apparently. There are some good points made in comparing Johns to Matisse, but I'd never give Johns a "beautiful touch". It just ain't there. Maybe take another look.

Instead of art "drained of passion" it is art drained of art.



April 10, 2008, 8:04 AM

Yes, Catfish, but think of all the potential for content. Even if it isn't there, or if it never occurred to Johns, you can always put it in yourself! Isn't that special? All you need is to be is intellectual enough, or imaginative enough, or a good enough bullshitter, and Presto! Instant Meaning, as much as you want, any kind you want. Isn't art terrific?

Like the surely expert and presumably authoritative Whitney Biennial co-curator Shamim has officially declared:

"Art is always about what you bring to it."

In case some of you are not intellectual enough to get it, this means that if the art doesn't seem very good to you, it's really your fault. You're not bringing enough to it. Now we can all stop complaining and live happily ever after.



April 10, 2008, 8:32 AM

Jack in #19 is edging closer and closer to the objective/subjective question that vexes just about everyone but me. Once you realize that art is objective, exists in itself outside any necessity that humans engage it (once it is created), then what you bring to it is not an issue. Rather, what, if anything, the art brings with itself is the question. In the case of Johns, the answer is "not much".

Where it gets sticky is how come some people are better at getting to what is sitting "there" than others. And why some get it sooner than others. It is not as simple as when you drop a 10 pound brick on people's heads and they all respond quickly and similarly.


Chris Rywalt

April 10, 2008, 8:34 AM

I assume, Catfish, that you've seen Johns' work in person enough to get a feel for it. I just looked over the JPEGs on the Met site and can't find one to support my position; none of them have the resolution for it. But I found a number of passages, here and there, where Johns had laid down a really lovely stroke, just a simple wave, back and forth, that all by itself was beautiful. Of course it was usually surrounded by pointlessness. I was surprised, because I'd seen Johns before and always just sort of dismissed him; but there it was, these pretty little painterly touch here and there. All overwhelmed by -- I love this -- the pendulous broom of time and whatnot.

But I couldn't just pretend they weren't there, those touches. And I think that helps people like Johns -- they're baffled by his content (or lack thereof), but then they can point to those brushstrokes and say, "Look! He really is a painter!"

I guess you don't see it the same way. I'm not saying he has the greatest touch of all time -- just that it's better than it has any right to be.


Marc Country

April 10, 2008, 8:43 AM

I agree, this all looks to be some pretty boring shit, but, it's not the worst I've seen. Still, it is all ridiculously overrated. This is at the Met, you say? I suppose they'll start putting all kinds of junk shows like this on there, now that Montebello isn't there to mind the store... Alas.



April 10, 2008, 8:55 AM

The Emperor's new clothes.

Johns got a lot of mileage out of the encaustic/newspaper texture all knitted together in the older work. They hold the light a bit and look pretty, but as I discovered when I dabbled in encaustic (and almost burned down my house!) it's not too hard to get wax to look good. Great is hard. Maybe our sense of good work is so stunted that if someone even motions towards attention to surface and touch we get all excited.



April 10, 2008, 8:56 AM

I'm pretty sure I remember reading something by Robert Hughes regarding Johns which made a point of the "beautiful strokes" business, meaning Hughes agreed with Chris. I'm not citing this as evidence for or against that opinion, but as evidence that it has been expressed by others.



April 10, 2008, 9:04 AM

Catfish, re #20, I'm not vexed at all. I totally agree. What vexes me is why so many people are (or act) vexed in the first place. It doesn't make much sense (but maybe that's my sackcloth underpants talking).


re: 19

April 10, 2008, 9:19 AM

A good dealer enough helps too. Castelli has made a suave buck or two as I recall.



April 10, 2008, 11:15 AM

Regular readers of this blog may have seen this quote recently: "We painted the Millennium Falcon all gray -- it makes the lighting right. There’s a certain three-dimensionality about it."


Chris Rywalt

April 10, 2008, 11:41 AM

Jack, if your sackcloth underpants are talking, that's a sign it's time to wash them.



April 10, 2008, 4:48 PM

[Guidelines appear on the right side of the comment form for your reading convenience. - F.]



April 10, 2008, 5:44 PM

(re. #29)

Are the JJ acolytes coming out of the wood work?



April 10, 2008, 5:48 PM

Naah, just an ad.



April 10, 2008, 6:37 PM

The JJ acolytes are hardly likely to come here, not even for the drive-by shootings we're now used to periodically. They're the blue-chip (not to say blue hair) set, which is different from the contemporary majors. They'd rather spend their time at the country club, golf course or some fundraiser or other. Many of them may not know what a blog is. But they do like their certified, super-"validated," art-book-enshrined trophies. You know, the kind of stuff even the Met will show. Safe as houses. Or so they've been assured.


Chris Rywalt

April 10, 2008, 6:55 PM

Houses being so safe lately, market-wise.


Marc Country

April 10, 2008, 9:54 PM

The JJ acolytes are hardly likely to come here..."

Well, George is a bit conspicuous in his absence, here...



April 11, 2008, 3:55 AM

I know this will invalidate my entire existence (my art, my writing, my intellectual worth, my identity, my personality, my entire being) if I admit this but...I have never liked JJ and that includes every single phase of his long and illustriuos career. There I said it. Oh art god please forgive me! No...No...No...No! It burns!


Chris Rywalt

April 11, 2008, 5:30 AM

With any luck, we can spend Franklin's next post picking on Robert Rauschenberg.



April 11, 2008, 5:35 AM

Chris, it's been done. Pick another one.



April 11, 2008, 6:57 AM

I nominate Brice Marden.


Marc Country

April 11, 2008, 7:06 AM

How about Tomma Abts?


Chris Rywalt

April 11, 2008, 7:54 AM

Actually, those Abts paintings look kind of neat.



April 11, 2008, 8:22 AM

Paintings? They look like digital displays.



April 11, 2008, 8:59 AM

Rauschenberg is not a great artist but he is a way better artist than Johns. He knows how to put a picture together, and his stuff is a lot more fun and lively. Johns work is just dreary.



April 11, 2008, 10:56 AM

Well, Rauschenberg is certainly far less self-consciously Serious and portentous. Johns is perfect for people who want to feel and appear intellectual and profound, who pretend to be able to see beyond or beneath the painfully meager artistry of Johns because they "get it."



April 11, 2008, 11:07 AM

Morandi could be dreary but I heart the work. RR doesn't get to me at all.


Chris Rywalt

April 11, 2008, 12:42 PM

Rauschenberg both looks and sounds -- in interviews I've read -- like he's in art for the fun of it. Whereas Johns just seems dull and lifeless, serious and not as smart as he thinks he is. I don't like Rauschenberg's work at all, but I kind of wish I did, because he seems like a nice guy enjoying himself. And as dopey an idea as art his erased drawings are, I can't help but love the fact that he annoyed de Kooning with them.



April 11, 2008, 2:06 PM

I've never thought of Morandi as dreary, but that term could certainly be used for this Gray show by Johns.



April 13, 2008, 6:59 AM

I think much of JJ's work shows an element of contempt in it's slackness. RR on the other hand - while showing similar finishing - always seems to have greater depth and humour.


Nantucket Art

April 14, 2008, 6:04 AM

The ever inspirational Darren Rowse over at Problogger has declared today April 14th Blogger Appreciation day - and asked readers to email another blogger to let them know that they appreciate something about them, so let’s spend today doing a few random acts of kindness and encouragement for our fellow bloggers.

Here’s afew bloggers who make our world at Nantucket Art a little brighter..

Please take the time to think about a blog you like and send some love their way..



April 14, 2008, 12:30 PM

Traditionally we think of abstraction as pure and unmitigated, a set of black-and-white principles that will not admit of grays. In other words, we associate abstraction with a kind of idealism. The question arises, If we are suspicious of idealism, are we then suspicious of abstraction? Is it necessary that abstraction be ideal and that it be in good faith?

Kirk Varnedoe, Pictures of Nothing (p 191)
Introducing a chapter on satire and irony in post-war art.
(emphasis mine)


Nantucket Art

April 15, 2008, 2:46 AM

I prefer Cy Twombly myself...


bob ragland

April 15, 2008, 11:44 AM

Geeze, I didn't realize so many people made the first cave painting. Lots of haters in the art universe. Dang. Well one thing for certain, no matter what some one does, somebody won't like it.



April 15, 2008, 11:58 AM

Go ahead and disagree if you want to, Bob. That might get some dialogue going. Sarcastic comments don't do anything for the discussion.



April 15, 2008, 3:47 PM

From what I saw at the website I found these works amazingly good and inspiring. It must be the different cultural background we have, that you dislike it so much, but I find the works quite good, much better than many of other failures I saw in the recent month on all that fairs and shows (only on the web). Actually I find the works pretty close in freedom and discipline to the works of Olitski, who you (Franklin) do like on the contrary very much as I understood.
I did not like the "Brom", but more the abstracts like "Between the Clock and the Bed" and "Tennyson" and "Celine"
Best regards, Hans



April 15, 2008, 3:56 PM

De gustibus, Hans. I have a colleague who thinks Johns was the greatest artist of the 20th C. To me they are utterly flat nd lifeless.



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