August 15, 2007
by Canadian Architect
One of the most important and prolific American artists of the 20th century, Jasper Johns is best known as the creator of the flags, maps, targets, and alphabets now recognized as iconic modern American works. Not surprisingly, Johns is also one of the most studied American artists, the subject of exhibitions and books as well as a major influence on artists, writers, and composers. But despite all of this scrutiny, a signal aspect of his production has never before been the subject of an exhibitionhis use of the color gray. Gray is just as central to his work as targets and flags, and it has been a consistent thread in his practice for decades. Johns has worked through all of his series in gray; he produced many paintings only in gray; he translates paintings from colour into gray; he experiments with gray materials such as Sculp-metal, lead, and silver; and he worked from gray paintings to color versions of the same theme. Jasper Johns: Gray, which opens at the Art Institute of Chicago on November 3, 2007, is a radical new take on the work of an American master. Viewers of the exhibition will see, for the first time, how gray functioned for Johns over time as its own material, as a philosophy, as a mood, as a concept or indication of a concept. They will also see the wide range and mood of Johnss graywarm and cold, light and dark, disciplined and lush, closed and expansiveacross many different media. The exhibition, consisting of 141 worksincluding paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawingsencompasses all periods of Johnss production, beginning in 1955 and running up through the present, including several works never publicly exhibited before. Jasper Johns: Gray sheds light on an aspect of the artists career that has been hiding in plain sight for decades.
I think viewers of this exhibition will be able to experience the great potential and meaning that gray has for Jasper Johns, said James Rondeau, Frances and Thomas Dittmer Chair of Contemporary Art at the Art Institute of Chicago and co-curator of the exhibition. Gray is much more than a colour to him. It is an analytical tool, a measure of distance and separation, and a means of getting to the heart of his practice as an artist. Through such a close exploration of a subtle and restricted range, Johns is able to make abundant and commodious discoveries. We are honoured to be able to bring these discoveries together for the first time. Johns (b. 1930) emerged in the 1950s as one of the leading artists of the generation that followed the Abstract Expressionists in New York. Eschewing the highly subjective and expressive themes and techniques of artist such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, Johns, along with his contemporaries such as Robert Rauschenberg, turned to a more conceptual approach to painting, incorporating elements of popular culture, language, and everyday objects into his work. Widely recognized for his long series of encaustic (wax) works using the American flag, the alphabet, maps, and numbers, Johns used these emblematic forms and shapes as vehicles to investigate representation, the act of cognition, and the nature of language. But, as this exhibition convincingly demonstrates, while Johns is best known for his imagery executed in colour, monochrome works particularly those in grayare critical to his practice. That colour, for Johns, is a means of stripping his ideas down to their essentials and finding infinite variety within a formal limit.
Jasper Johns: Gray includes a number of paintings that are very rarely exhibited as well as many of the artists signature works, such as his images of maps and targets, alphabets and numbers. Viewers will find here the first map work Johns created as well as the rarely seen 4 Leo (1970), which has been in the private collection of dealer Leo Castelli. Johnss works Coat Hanger (1949) and PortraitViola Farber (1961), included here, have not been shown publicly in decades, and several works from 2007 have been before been exhibited. In addition to bringing many of these works on view, the exhibition also features such defining pieces as Tennyson (1958), In Memory of My FeelingsFrank OHara (1961), Winter (1986) from The Seasons series, and the Art Institutes own Near the Lagoon (200203). Thirty-four works in the exhibition, including many prints and drawings, are from the Art Institutes permanent collection, and 26 works are from Johnss personal collection.
In a recent interview published in the exhibition catalogue, Johns remarks, I dont know how much Ive used [gray]. I mean, I guess Im going to learn, from this exhibition. Jasper Johns: Gray reveals this undiscovered aspect of the work of this landmark American artist with a dazzling collection of paintings, drawings, prints, and sculpture. The exhibition brings together both monuments of Johnss career and intimate experiments, complementing the familiar with the newly uncovered, and offering viewers a new lens through which to see some of the most iconic works of modern art.