Jasper Johns: “Regrets” at MoMA
By Jason Edward Kaufman
In his late career, Jasper Johns has become increasingly dark in his cerebral riffs on found images. His early targets, flags, numbers, maps and crosshatched fields have yielded to elegiac compositions that include a portrait of his late dealer Leo Castelli and silhouetted stand-ins for the artist himself confronting jumbles of motifs from art history and his own artistic past.
In his new show at MoMA the octogenarian’s source material is a crumpled and folded black-and-white photograph of the British painter Lucian Freud, grandson of the psychiatrist. The photograph, by John Deakin, was commissioned by the artist Francis Bacon as a model for painted portraits. Freud appears seated on a bed and covering his face with his hand as if shying from the camera.
Johns made drawings based on the psychologically charged scene, emphasizing the outlines of the composition and the creases and folds in the physical photograph itself. In most cases he juxtaposes his cropped variant side-by-side with its reverse image, allowing mysterious forms to emerge in the center of the conjoined mirrored compositions — notably a skull hovering over what looks like either a castle, a headboard or robed figures facing one another. The words, “Regrets, Jasper Johns” – taken from an ink stamp used to decline invitation requests – sometimes appear over the bed, serving as a wistful caption.
One never knows for sure what sphinx-like Johns has in mind, but these intriguing drawings, paintings and prints – all completed in the last couple of years — had me thinking about death, sexuality and introspection, and how Johns relates to his eminent British near contemporaries, Freud and Bacon. In titling the series “Regrets” is Johns proposing a psychological aspect of Freud’s shyness, or Johns’ own conflicted feelings about his peers, both of whom recently passed away.
In 2012, Johns found the photograph reproduced in a Christie’s sales catalogue of detritus from Bacon’s studio. The picture was taken around 1964, the same year that Johns wrote in a sketchbook, “Take an object/ Do something to it/ Do something else to it [Repeat].” That jotting, frequently cited as the artist’s modus operandi, prescribes what MoMA describes as the “process and experimentation, the cycle of dead ends and fresh starts, and the incessant interplay of materials, meaning, and representation so characteristic of Johns’s career over the last 60 years.”
The exhibition exemplifies his multi-media remixing of an image, gathering ten drawings in graphite and colored pencil, watercolor, charcoal and pastel, four ink-on-plastic drawings, two prints (along with their preliminary states), and two oil paintings. MoMA has acquired the larger canvas (67 x 96 inches), a large drawing, as well as the plastic works and each of the finished prints. The show remains on view through September 1, 2014.
Jason Edward Kaufman //
This article appeared in Artphaire (Online), April 21, 2014.