The man who may be America’s greatest living artist is having his first LA show in more than 50 years, in “Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth,” which opens Saturday at The Broad museum in downtown LA.
Johns, who turns 88 in May, was discovered by New York gallery owner Leo Castelli approximately 60 years ago. Since then, he's become famous for painting blazing targets, assertive single-digit numbers and, especially, American flags. Those works now sell for tens of millions of dollars.
He once told an interviewer he doesn’t “fully understand” that part of the art business. "When it begins," he said, "You’re pleased that you can make something and sell it. It allows you to do the work that you want to do. As the value increases, you see that society takes over in the value and meaning of the work.
But Johns says, “The meaning may just be that the painting exists.” His flags and targets augured the coming of Pop Art, but he more identified with the 1920s Da Da movement and chief Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, whose work taught him to disregard artistic formality and convention. He once said, "At times I will attempt to do something which seems quite uncalled for in the painting, so that the work won’t proceed so logically from where it is but will go somewhere else."
Johns hung with dancer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage, men at the razor’s edge of the late ‘50s avant garde, and his work evolved into sculpture and lithography, acquiring influences from painters as various as Picasso and Grunewald, yet continued to evoke real, primal themes like targets and flags, the lonely years of his Carolina childhood, and his losses and disappointments.
"I like what I see to be real or to be my idea of what is real, and I think I have a kind of resentment against illusion when I can recognize it." -- Jasper Johns
The new show at the Broad, titled “Something Resembling Truth,” gives us 127 of Johns’ creative “realities,” some of which have never traveled before. The exhibit, which includes 7 pieces from the Broad collection, is pointedly not a chronological retrospective, but a themed survey. That might be a problem for you if you’re trying to figure out how Johns evolved. And – at least for me – 127 works was too much to take in on my 90-minute visit. At $25 a ticket, that might also be a problem for many viewers. (Just to clarify, The Broad is not imposing a time limit for visitors.)
There’s an entire gallery of his famous flags – some with 48 stars because he started them before Alaska and Hawaii were states. Johns says the flag first occurred to him in a dream: when he awoke, he was so obsessed with the image that he painted the spectral Old Glory on his sheets. The many flag paintings since then — in different sizes, shapes, color and textures -- tend to arouse your mind simply by asking it “why.” So do the targets, in their disparate colors.
As his career advanced, Johns moved beyond shape, color and stimulus, but never settled into representation ... which doesn’t mean he eschews any narrative. In the 1980s, he painted “Four Seasons,” big canvases wherein a ghostlike representation of what might be Johns’ own shadow (below) flits through Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring. The pictures contain many of Johns’ personal symbols. Winter has a child’s blackboard drawing of a snowman. Spring rains down on its entire picture, including the shadow man.
What does it mean? Famously, he won’t say. But sometimes, it’s apparent. A painting called “In Memory of my feelings,” with a gloomy finish and pathetically dangling fork and spoon, evokes Johns’ sorrow over the loss of his longtime lover Robert Rauschenberg. Like over 10 dozen works elsewhere in the Broad galleries, it cements Johns’ reputation as an American icon as powerful as that flag itself.
Marc Haefele is KPCC's Culture Correspondent. He reviewed "Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth," at The Broad museum in downtown LA. It opens Saturday and runs through May 13, 2018. Tickets are $25 and timed reservations are required. The exhibit is a collaboration with the Royal Academy, London.