May 17, 2018 Repository 213: Happy Birthday Jasper Johns! Posted In: contemporary art, exhibition of note, perspective

The habit of regarding “art” as a thing apart from life is fatal to the development of taste. – Edith Wharton

“Painting With Two Balls”, Jasper Johns, 1964 courtesy of the artist

Dear Mr. Johns,

I am writing to wish you the happiest of birthdays! It was a pleasure to see all of your work two weeks ago at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles. Despite the pomp of the Broad, “Resembling the Truth” was an intimate retrospective, full of important work from your private collection, as well as the major works from major collections. The choices from your private collection truly help to support your motivations in art, and is rare for the public to ever see. Also, the inclusion of the masterpiece “Painting With Two Balls”, speaks bounds about your entire oeuvre, and dare I say your nature. I don’t know you, though I feel you through this piece, it’s intelligent, wild, precise, funny and serious at once. And while you are famously coy about discussing the work, and critics and academics find it a mystery, I don’t find it so. I find it an honest reflection of a person living in a time when showing your true colors may have been detrimental, where the work serves at once as a camouflage and also an SOS and a celebration. 

“Ale Cans”, Jasper Johns, 1964

I have fond memories of staring at a slide of your “Ale Cans”, while my mentors reviewed the work – the ideas, the everyday, the dada, the readymade, the thought. I understood immediately why it was a seminal work of yours here in the states – the time and patience it took to paint the bronze trompe-l’œil style will always seduce an earnest American audience. While I am American (born in Canada), I was always suspicious of the long discussions of the double cans, knowing there was something more simple in its interpretation. I’ve always felt people were putting too much weight on the mental gymnastics surrounding the work. There are two cans, completely similar and not cans.

It seems you hit a sweet spot when you were first picked up by Leo Castelli – your work came as a cool and quiet alternative to the emotional ribaldry of abstract expressionism. Your work silently seduced people with it’s popular imagery and no clear narrative. You were not working with emotions, but ideas. Or were you? In retrospect with life experience and having worked through my own art practice for some time, I see that perhaps this work was a direct reflection of the personal and private. The objects you used were familiar and helped to lure the viewer into common territory, a place where you may have continually yearned for.

Painting can be a conversation with oneself and, at the same time, it can be a conversation with other paintings. – Jasper Johns

You believed I assume, like your partner, that art and life are not separate. That there is a gap you can dance around in. I certainly believe that one must not separate life and art, otherwise the work and the life lack integrity and are disingenuous.

The 50’s were not a hospitable time to be gay, and while you were partnered with and decorating windows at Tiffany’s with Rauschenberg, you may have had to hide your true relationship with your lover. So your art was destined to have a sense of duality – while I may be looking at a beer can, it’s really a meticulously painted bronze sculpture, and while you may look like a man, I’m really seeing a naturally evolved gay man. It’s no wonder your work took on the hue of grey so beautifully, with screams of “no” and rulers measuring the paintings. How are you sizing up in a sea of “NOrmal”? And the continual theme of the two mens’ faces staring at one another to create a vase – while critics call it a play on classical imagery it seems more a celebration of sameness: to reflect and mirror is a beautiful thing.

“Untitled”, 2012, Jasper Johns, courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks

So on your birthday I hope you receive all that you dream of, and that the returns on your artwork may feed a thousand struggling artists in the future. I know from an article in the New York Times that you were hoping for the exhibition to be free to the public, and disappointed to learn that it was not. It’s possible for you to endow this in the future, and I hope you will, because your work in all of it’s shyness and mystery is a cadence and ethos that must be revisited now. In fact it is urgent.

Thank you and happy birthday!



PS. This is by far the most beautiful piece I know of yours featured in the retrospective – a bold slice of trapped humanity, a desperate plea to see, hear, touch, smell and taste your actual self. This is a universal feeling for all – I am sure of that. Thank you for sharing.

“Skin with O’Hara Poem”, Jasper Johns, courtesy the Walker Center

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  1. Leon M Trice • May 20, 2018

    great to read! Reply

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