He's one of the three most important American artists from the 20th century, alongside Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. He's probably the most important living American artist, if you believe the art critics, curators and museum docents.
Jasper Johns. Even his name evokes a kind of mystery yet accessibility, and a sparkling, alliterative notion of success. The Broad museum downtown has just opened the most comprehensive survey of Johns' work in the United States in more than two decades, and the first major survey of the artist's work in Los Angeles. (Although his "Numbers" show at LACMA in 2004 was important and memorable.)
"Jasper Johns: 'Something Resembling Truth'" is a huge exhibition, featuring more than 120 works from the past seven decades of Johns' career. He's 87 now, living in Sharon, Connecticut, one of the richest artists alive.
The exhibition brings together paintings, prints, sculptures and drawings from the country's most prestigious museums, as well as international institutions, private collections and the artist's own stash.
The show shares plenty of Johns' history and context as an artist but not much insight into his deep, intimate and secret (at the time) relationship with fellow New York–based artist Robert Rauschenberg. Johns and Rauschenberg were lovers for six years, between 1954 and 1961. Their relationship is still begging for some theory, queer or otherwise, to explain, penetrate and connect the great achievements of the two artists, who were aesthetic collaborators for a significant period. (That's why their work looks so similar during certain eras.) The two sought to detonate the reigning zeitgeist of abstract expressionism, even though they emerged from and shared traits with that seminal movement. And they pretty much succeeded in detonation, each in his own way.
But this is not that kind of exhibition, exploring queer connections. No, this is the comprehensive, blockbuster presentation that billionaire wallets and long-nurtured connections can produce. And it's an impressive, strong survey and retrospective of some of Johns' finest work, as well as a window to obscure pieces that most of us in Southern California have never seen in person.
"Jasper Johns" is organized thematically, not chronologically. So don't expect to see first things first and last things last. However, there is a method to the thematic organization, and later work — some of it surprising — does tend to show up near the end.
The opening gallery after the entrance is devoted to the American flag, one of Johns' trademark subjects. The "flag room" contains famous and lesser-known paintings of American flags, including banners with 48 stars — before Alaska and Hawaii became states — and flags painted in green, black and orange. Supposedly, those are the opposite colors of red, white and blue on the color spectrum, but I haven't checked yet to see what Josef Albers theorized about all that.
Three Flags (encaustic on canvas), on loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art, is a show stopper, as it was in 1958. Flag (1967), an encaustic and collage on canvas from the Broad's own collection, also is worth close examination because of its texture and layers.
Essentially, the flags allow us to ask important questions, as viewers did when they first saw them: Is it a flag? Or is it a painting of a flag? Is it art? These are the kind of questions René Magritte asked with This Is Not a Pipe (aka The Treachery of Images) from 1928-29.
In addition to the traditional oils on canvas, Johns is noted for his use of encaustic (beeswax) and found-material collage. He also employed cross-hatchings in a series of works from the 1970s through the early '80s.
Viewers will get to see the famous encaustic and collage painting Target, from 1961, as well as White Target from 1958. Painting With Two Balls (1960) and Watchman (1964) also may look familiar to art history buffs.
Map (1962-63) is a cool achievement, straddling the line between art and cartography. It's an encaustic-and-collage map on canvas of the United States in almost all black and white and gray, with some touches of yellow, blue and red. One can make out the capitalized names or abbreviations for most of the states.
Johns' talent was to take the familiar symbol or object, such as flags, numbers, letters and balls, detach them from their original context and turn them into art, or a part of his art. The artist was influenced by Marcel Duchamp and Dada, even though he's lumped in with the tail end of abstract expressionism and the rise of pop art and minimalism.
Numbers are among his strongest, most effective works. You can see all the digits from 0 to 9 on top of one another in 0 through 9 (1961), an oil on canvas, and 0 through 9 (1960), a charcoal drawing on paper. In fact, identifying the digits from 0 to 9 and realizing the spatial and linear connections between certain numbers becomes something of a revelation.
The "In the Studio" section features Johns' recognizable Painted Bronze (1960) sculpture of a paint can and brushes, as well as a handful of combines, borrowing techniques from friend and lover Rauschenberg. References to other artists, musicians and choreographers abound, among them John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Pablo Picasso and Edvard Munch.
"'Something Resembling Truth'" — its title a phrase taken from a quote by Johns — reveals philosophical and introspective sides of the artist that haven't been widely shared. His reflective, figurative "Seasons" series from 1985-86 is shown at the Broad in its entirety, from Summer to Spring. It's quite rare to have them all together in one show; in fact, it's never happened before in Los Angeles.
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The exhibition includes enigmatic later-career work, which is full of references to surrealism, Joan Miró and the end of life. There's even a painting as recent as 2016, an untitled oil on canvas that looks more like Miró or Salvador Dalí, and not at all like a typical Johns.
A warning: Once you decide to attend this show, which is a hot ticket, you must deal with the vicissitudes of the crowds at the Broad. Avoid the endless line outside and buy your ticket in advance online.
Oh, and a reminder: This show ain't free, like the rest of the Broad. "Jasper Johns: 'Something Resembling Truth'?" is a bit on the expensive side at $25 a ticket. (Children 15 and younger can get in for free.) But considering the price of art these days, and the multimillion-dollar price tag that Johns' work commands, it's worth it.
JASPER JOHNS: "SOMETHING RESEMBLING TRUTH" | The Broad, Grand Ave., downtown | Through May 13 | thebroad.org