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Jasper Johns Opens at National Gallery

Jasper Johns Opens at National Gallery

When Jasper Johns decided to reinvent himself as an artist in 1954, moving away from abstract expressionism, he destroyed all his work. Perhaps the most notable image he used to start over was the American flag. The target, or bulls-eye, was second.
That is where the new exhibition "Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955-1965" begins, opening Sunday at the National Gallery of Art. The show departs from the typical format of a survey or retrospective to follow four specific motifs in Johns' first decade of work _ the target, the "device," the stenciled naming of colors and the imprint of the body.
"By stripping away everything else and showing the works that introduce and share the four motifs only, we watch a philosophy of painting take shape over time," said Jeffrey Weiss, the gallery's chief curator of modern and contemporary art, who spent three years compiling the exhibition. This period of Johns' career was focused on "art that means to examine what painting is and what painting could or can be."
Johns sought to reduce art-making to a series of quasi-mechanical procedures as depicted in pairs and sequences of paintings, drawings and prints.
The exhibit begins with the many targets he used in his work until 1961, including the first two paintings of the image, "Target With Four Faces" (1955) and "Target With Plaster Casts" (1955), which incorporates a row of boxes above the target with plaster casts of different body parts. For Johns, the targets are instruments for "seeing across space" and imply that "seeing" is an act of potential violence, Weiss said.
After the target, Johns moved toward the subject of the mechanical "device" _ a wooden, compasslike tool attached to the canvas to scrape through the paint in arcs and circles. The first work in this motif was the "Device Circle" (1959).
That year, Johns began naming (and misnaming) colors with stenciled lettering in the painting "False Start" and later "Jubilee" (1960) and many other works. The words red, yellow and blue appear consistently throughout the works that followed. But they are not always matched to the corresponding color and sometimes appear in works that are black, white and gray.
"Johns was at pains to address a painting or a drawing, not just as an image but as an object, or better as a hybrid of those two things, of image and object," Weiss said. "He was determined to remind himself and us that a painting is a peculiar, physical thing _ a stretched canvas and a support for medium, an object you carry around the studio like a piece of furniture."
Johns began using his own body as an instrument and image in works such as the "Skin" drawings (1962), in which the artist covered his head and hands with baby oil and made an invisible impression of those body parts on drafting paper. The images were revealed when he rubbed them with strokes of charcoal.
One of the most striking imprints of the body is found in "Painting Bitten by a Man" (1961), which has teeth marks from Johns' actual bite of the painting's surface.
Almost all the work in which Johns deployed these motifs between 1955 and 1965 have been included in the show. Weiss said he tried to present Johns in a different way to show what defined him as an artist _ beyond the famous flag images.
"I tried to make Johns less familiar than he has been in the past," Weiss said.
Much of the second half of the exhibition is composed of works that represent combinations of the different motifs, including the unusually large paintings "Diver" (1962) and "According to What" (1964).
Johns, who was born in 1930 in Augusta, Ga., visited the exhibition Wednesday for a dinner in his honor. The show includes 83 works from 44 different collections worldwide, including the artist's own collection. It runs through April 29 in Washington and will move to the Kuntsmuseum Basel in Switzerland from June 2 through Sept. 9.
"The landmark body of work that Johns produced from 1955 to 1965 has proven to be a deep resource of inspiration of artists," said Earl A. Powell III, the gallery's director.
Powell announced that a companion exhibition called "States and Variations: Prints by Jasper Johns" will open at the National Gallery of Art on March 11 with six motifs _ ale cans, paint brushes, flag, light bulb, flashlight and the numerals 0 through 9.
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Updated : 2020-12-05 14:17 GMT+08:00