“Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.” - Alfred, Lord Tennyson
"Jasper Johns, the seafaring stranger," I thought. The sea kept sweeping through the galleries during my visit to Jasper Johns: Gray at the Met - images of a drowning poet, symbolized by Periscope (Hart Crane), Tennyson, the Poet Laureate who lived on the Isle of Wight, and the bridges, evoked by the Catenary series, leading voyagers to the edge of the sea. Johns has lived on many islands - Manhattan, the island, Edisto, the haunted sea island off the South Carolina shore, and the island of St. Martin, one of Johns' homes. Even circumstances of Johns's friends bring to mind the sea - Bob Rauschenberg, a child of Port Arthur, Texas, on the Gulf, and Frank O'Hara, the poet who died on Fire Island.
The Met arranges the grays thematically and, more or less, chronologically. After stating the thesis, well-made in the presentation of False Start and Jubilee, two paintings with the same subject, one with color and one with gray, the exhibit walks the visitor through the visual language of the artist - the objects (drawer, coat hanger, etc.), American flags in gray, the maps and targets leached of their colors, and then the splendid numbers and alphabets.
The targets, alphabets, and numbers function as our artist's semaphore - the "words" of his language, the "things the mind already knows." They are Johns' vocabulary, conveyed with all the tools of the trade - paints, graphite, encaustic, charcoal, watercolor, conté pencils, found objects, collage. Drawing is a gray medium. Letters and numbers - H means Hard, B means Black, and the HBs of the middle - 4, 5, 6, render grays.
And then comes Edisto. A drama unfolds. What happened to Johns here? It's the early 1960s, he's turned 30, and he's gone dark, sensitive, bleak, even tragic. Here's the room of Frank O'Hara and Hart Crane and a painting titled Liar and another titled No. Edisto, an old sea home of the Gullah people, is a moody, rocky, beautiful hard place. On those windswept days of gray rain and clouds, especially near the sea, pigmented colors announce themselves loudly, but at the same time a mood is struck. This sea island is the province of uncertainty, a place adrift, a Samuel Beckett play.
Beyond Edisto, the exhibit moves through a sculpture room and then to the hatch mark paintings. These short parallel lines become a new important part of the artist's pattern language. He's said that he saw the pattern on the side of a van. While crosshatching is a known technique in drawing, employed to render shading, Johns' hatch marks don't really cross. They're held in tension, graphic and flat, but full of motion in two dimensions.
Then comes the 80's room, shocking in its representations, the collage aesthetic, the busy bits of art history and the autobiographical archive. Winter, by the way, with the foregrounded snowflakes, its little snowman, and its looming outlined human figure, reeks of a midlife crisis. It's a moment where Johns looks like he's been swept up in a larger self-referential art history breakout and not really in his own element. He's included his own paintings in his paintings. They're all so social and conversational, even if it's mostly with the art history textbook. It feels like a phase.
He came out of it. Upon reaching the tenth room of the Gray exhibit, I sat on a bench and stayed long enough among the large gray Catenary paintings to watch the slight swaying of the ropes. Peace and quiet. With Near the Lagoon, 2002-3, a vertical canvas, the catenary becomes a drawing device and also a cosmic curtain. These gray surfaces are richer, bluer and creamier than the earlier paintings. Here's the Milky Way and the hints of the harlequin trickster. The jig is up. Johns has moved from his winter into night. I can smell the salt air in the astronomical twilight, the creaking of the pier underneath.
Upon leaving the exhibit, the gray flagstone pathway of Within, with its hints of many-colored lava underneath, carries the artist-as-Prospero, perhaps accompanied by a dog or two, to a new place on the island.
Jasper Johns: Gray continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 4, 2008.
See also the review of the drawings at Matthew Marks.