The current exhibition at the East Gallery is a selection of Jasper Johns paintings, among them some of the most well-known of his works (e.g. the paintings with the names of colors painted in colors other than those which they signify). I went a few weeks ago with a friend, and will return at least once more in order to see the accompanying exhibition of prints. I had always liked his work just fine, but the exhibition—organized by theme rather than in a strictly chronological manner—immersed me in his vision in a whole new way.
In this exhibition, and the Joseph Cornell retrospective earlier this year, I was fascinated by the reproduction of certain images and concepts throughout the works. With both Johns and Cornell, I find myself loving the themes, both in terms of content and in the fact of their existence. I suppose it makes them more human to me, linking them to the way that each of us circles around themes and repeats motifs and patterns in our own lives. It’s endearing to find such a clear expression of this aspect of modern life in such compelling works of art.
At least, it was for me: while at the two exhibitions I was surprised to hear other viewers describe the works—and the habit of returning to favorite themes over time—as disturbing or jarring. With Johns, several friends commented that the disconnection of the signifier—e.g. ‘red’—from the color it signifies was jarring and difficult to enjoy. It’s not only the simple disconnection, I suppose, since we’re used to seeing all color words printed in a neutral black; it’s the replacement of the signified color with one that doesn’t match (e.g. ‘red’ painted in blue) that is disconcerting. Or, it was to others: I found it wonderfully energizing. Granted, I’ve spent a bit more time considering postmodern linguistic theory than just about everyone I socialize with out here, so it was a treat for me to see those ideas made real in such a vibrant way.
Until I saw a photo of Johns at work on these paintings, I would have imagined their creation to be nonstop fun (he doesn’t crack a smile, and his stance and self-presentation in early photos are so Germanic he appears Austrian). I, for one, smiled enough for both of us throughout my visit.