By Garin Pirnia
In an episode of “The Simpsons,” artist Jasper Johns is lionized when Homer accidentally becomes an artist. “In your face, Jasper Johns!” shouts Homer upon selling his first artwork. You know you’re somebody when you’re parodied in pop culture, especially when you’re a Pop artist. Like his contemporaries Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, Johns made a career out of re-animating both common and iconic objects such as flags, targets and numbers. Johns has slightly been misconstrued, though. Much of his art has been labeled Pop Art, though it has always been imbued with both conceptual and expressionistic qualities alike.
The new Art Institute exhibit specifies the profundity of the color gray, which traverses through Johns’ entire career from the 1950s to the present. Johns once said, “I used gray encaustic [wax medium] to avoid the color situation.” Is this statement a cop-out? Is it truly easier to use monochrome instead of delving into a color scheme of bright oranges, reds and yellows? It’s as phony as a film student making a black-and-white film to avoid paying more for color film. But life is mainly gray, not simply black and white. We’d like things to be as clear and simple as black and white, yet life is usually opaque.
Gray began appearing frequently in Johns’ art starting in 1959. “False Start” is a colorful painting with the names of the colors stenciled onto the canvas, and the same year Johns painted “Jubilee,” a gray reproduction of the vibrant “False Start.” What Johns does with the color gray is change the way one looks at art. He evacuated the gestural strokes of color of their life, replaced it with various shades of gray, and forced viewers to question the difference.
Johns performed this same trick dozens of times throughout his career, and the exhibit does a good job of breaking down his artistic ventures into sizable thematic chunks. First, American flags are explored. Johns’ encaustic painting “Flag” from the mid-1950s integrates signature reds, whites, blues and stars, but in the 1960s, he grayed the flag using graphite wash, a silvery-gray medium. In monochromatic gray, the iconic flag image isn’t as ostensible. Johns liked to manipulate his objects by taking the same picture and reproducing it in several forms and mediums. Encaustic was his main medium, but he used graphite, lithography, conté crayon, sculp-metal, tusche and various ilks of paper including tan wove paper, ivory wove, Japanese and newsprint to great effect, each revealing unique subtleties. Even his grays vary from the lightest in the spectrum to almost black.
In a way, Johns keeps beating a dead horse. The same images keep resurfacing later in his career. “Two Flags” shows up again in 1985 when he used ink on plastic, emanating a watercolor effect, and again in 1994 in “Flag,” when he grayed over the colored flag masking and suppressed the rich colors but let some color remnants seep through. Next was Johns’ series of targets. Remarkably, the targets look more akin to eyeballs, and thus the true subject matter of Johns’ work becomes apparent. “White Target” is composed of a succession of white concentric circles on black paper, tricking the mind into believing that it’s gray. The color gray, paired with the target form, comes to be representative of the viewers’ eye and the intricacies of seeing.
Later in his career, Johns obtained a palpable mood with his grays when he eschewed structure and allowed himself to succumb to emotion. In the early 1960s, Johns started spending more time in South Carolina and less time in New York. In “Periscope (Hart Crane),” Johns depicted the suicidal poet Hart Crane with grays suggesting melancholy and distance. “Water Freeze” consists of two gray panels and a red thermometer resting in between them making the viewer aware of the context. “Diver,” his largest work on paper in the exhibit, is a blend of charcoal, pastel and watercolor on tan paper transforming into bleakness.
With more than a hundred pieces encompassing more than fifty years of Johns’ oeuvre, it’s impossible to easily summarize or generalize, but the breadth and variety of this seemingly simple color leaves the door wide open for interpretation. In fact, it’s those gray areas that fascinate and challenge us the most.
Jasper Johns’ “Gray” shows at the Art Institute of Chicago, Michigan and Adams, (312)443-3600, through January 6.