The New York Times

Jasper Johns Still Doesn't Want to Explain His Art

LOS ANGELES — Not long ago, Jasper Johns, who is now 87 and widely regarded as America’s foremost living artist, was reminiscing about his childhood in small-town South Carolina. One day when he was in the second grade, a classmate named Lottie Lou Oswald misbehaved and was summoned to the front of the room. As the teacher reached for a wooden ruler and prepared to paddle her, Lottie Lou grabbed the ruler from the teacher’s hand and broke it in half. Her classmates were stunned. “It was absolutely wonderful,” Johns told me, appearing to relish the memory of the girl’s defiance. A ruler, an instrument of the measured life, had become an accessory to rebellion. I thought of the anecdote the other day in Los Angeles, at the Broad museum’s beautiful retrospective, “Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth.” Coincidentally or not, several of the paintings in the show happen to have rulers affixed to their surfaces. It would be foolish, of course, to view Johns’ story about the brazen schoolgirl and the broken ruler as the source for those paintings. But is it fair to describe the anecdote as a haunting, an experience that lodged deeply in his brain while a thousand Johns himself is loath to offer biographical interpretations of his work — or any interpretations, for that matter. He is famously elusive and his humor tends toward the sardonic. He once joked that, of the dozens of books that have been written about his art, his favorite one was written in Japanese. What he liked is that he could not understand it. The Broad show, which remains on view through May 13 and covers six decades, offers a relatively intimate glimpse at his work. In a welcome departure from curatorial convention, the exhibition is organized thematically rather than chronologically. You come to see how the American flags and targets that remain Johns’ most acclaimed motifs are no more persistent than other motifs and themes, including forks and spoons, unsettling images of the human body broken into fragments and the drama of a muted self unable to express its needs. He says outright that he does not have faith in the process of memory, insisting it is less likely to disclose truths than to twist them. One of his frequent rejoinders is, “Interesting, if true,” in response to statements of incontestable fact. On the other hand, he seems to enjoy the process of weighing facts and evidence, even while acknowledging their limitations. Or, as he put it: “I’ve always said I would like to be a judge.” One thing that Johns understood at an early age is that language and truth are not the same. Growing up in the South, at a time when its citizens saw no contradiction between the cultivation of perfect table manners and the barbarism of segregation, he was well aware that people were not always logical. Born in 1930, Johns was the only son of an alcoholic farmer and a mother accustomed to hardship. His parents divorced in 1933, by which time he had been sent to live with his paternal grandfather, the first of many painful dislocations in his childhood. “I was a good guest,” he said, without rancor. “I was always a guest.” Asked if he plans to travel to L.A. to see his new show, Johns replied solemnly, “I am not going anywhere.” This is not entirely surprising. He has no great passion for travel. His friends say that he prefers to wake up in his own bed in Sharon, Connecticut, amid the familiarity of his rambling country estate, to eat tomatoes and lettuce he picks from his garden, to know that he is no longer a guest. The idea for the current show originated with Edith Devaney, a curator at the Royal Academy in London, and Roberta Bernstein, an art historian whose scholarship on Johns assumed magisterial proportions last year, with the publication of a five-volume catalogue raisonné of his paintings and sculptures. They were joined in assembling the Broad show by Joanne Heyler, the museum’s founding director; and Ed Schad, a curator and critic. The American faction of the group visited Johns at his home last November, after sending him an elaborate Gatorfoam-board model of their installation. They wanted to ensure that he was happy or at least not miserable about the show’s accents and emphases, which include the flashy and rather LA idea of opening with as many flag paintings as they could gather. Happily, the idea works. The show gets off to an ebullient start in a gallery ringed by 10 works that relate to American flags but differ in ways that are fun to observe. Masterpieces abound, including a 1958 “Flag” done in Johns’ signature wax-based pigment; “Ventriloquist” (1983), whose double flags give primacy to the secondary colors of green and orange; and the Whitney Museum’s beloved “Three Flags” (1958), with its successively smaller painted panels stacked like the layers of a cake. As you move through the gallery, you start to think less about flags than about Johns’ precise and patient process, the way he savors mark-making, constructing his images with the tactile lushness that Cézanne brought to his scenes of French bathers a century earlier. Perhaps Johns painted the American flag because he wanted to American-ize Cézanne, or conversely, to Cézanne-ify America.

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