Jasper Johns Talks to Me

Matthew Marks Gallery, February 9 - April 6, 2019

Often in the last year upon awakening, but with my eyes still closed, I see myself sobbing. The death of a friend, white supremacists, climate change, I don’t even know.
But more about that in a minute.

I’m not getting critics who see painting as a series of strategies—or as self-expression, and themselves as amateur shrinks. Worse, they ask the painters about their intentions or what they are “trying to do.” Do we ask Ella what her intentions were? Sinatra? Kurosawa?
If the painting doesn’t talk to you directly, doesn’t move you or change something about the way you see the world, it’s not a good painting—for you, for now.

Johns almost always talks to me. Not always; a great experimenter has great successes and great failures. He has made an exploration of the elements of seeing and the language of painting: the gray scale, the primary colors, the complements, crosshatching (a basic way of building dimension), gestalt theory, positive and negative space, objects we recognize or don’t.  It’s not just about the paintings—it’s about seeing the world afterward in a richer and more complex way.
Until recently his images of human figures have not worked for me and in this show too, I don’t care about the skeletons (except for the series of small playful drawings), or the little stick figures, or the Picasso sample with a medley of his greatest hits—they strike me as manipulative.
So the images of grief in Regrets when I saw them in 2014 and now Farley Breaks Down come as a total surprise and ignite a flash of recognition. I’m grateful. It’s so much easier to explore grief if it’s visible and shared. The effort to decipher the image and how it’s painted—with teardrops and ink, maybe?—allows pauses that both offer relief and repeated recognitions of the grief expressed. This doesn’t happen at all in these photographs, by the way, so I’ve taken only a couple to identify the works.
The two series complement each other—or maybe bookend is the right word to describe their connection. Regrets, based on a photo of Lucien Freud, is ambiguous, and more entrancing. It reminds me of my own grief now— and how I don’t even know where to start. Possibly with the idea that I had hoped that I and my generation might leave the world a better place?

(Not that I’ve given up on that idea but it’s looking iffy.)


“Untitled”, (2018), 78” x 60”

In Farley…, the grief is more immediate and specific; in 1965, a young soldier in Viet Nam collapses after his friend is killed. How harshly innocence was shattered, even if it was a gung-ho stupid innocence. Here are two other images from the period: the second one is a similar moment to Farley… —from the war here at home.

March on the Pentagon, 1967

Kent State, 1970

Or at least they seem similar now. That war, the senseless horror of it, the realization that an older generation would destroy its young and completely neglect the ones who came back. Many things changed for all of us, in ways not understood then or now and I think Johns is right to emphasize it in this way.
The war was vigorously opposed: one of the results of that was ending the draft. Now the working class and the poor fight the wars and the college kids stay out of it, so the rich can get richer and the gap between us gets wider and wider.

Several reviewers mention that Johns doesn’t give interviews and Peter Schjeldahl* is absurdly annoyed by it. He ends his review with the following:
“But here I am verging on yet another wordy thesis about the intentions of Jasper Johns, which to be authoritative, would need confirming testimony from him. Fat chance.”

A funny thing happened as I was finishing up this review. I came across an essay by John Yau in 2016: “Have We Been Misreading Jasper Johns All Along? Part One.”**
Yau says almost everything I say (and a lot more) including the idea that the medium Johns uses is tears. At first I thought, “Oh no…” but then I realized it made my thoughts more authoritative because now they have “confirming testimony.”


Peter Schjeldahl


John Yau



Have We Been Misreading Jasper Johns All Along? Part Two