2.21.2008

"Things the Mind Already Knows:" The Drawings of Jasper Johns (A Review)

Forty of Jasper Johns' drawings of the last ten years, currently on exhibit at Matthew Marks (522 W. 22 St.) in Chelsea, recommend themselves on so many levels that it's hard to know where to begin. I was struck not just by his continuing obsession with the images he's made famous over the years but by his obvious love for drawing and drawing materials. He's said this before, but it's clear he loves seeing how his targets, flags, numbers, etc. change from one medium to the next, how they emerge so differently on various material surfaces. He makes them all look new.

As much as I like looking at Johns' canvases, I love seeing these images played out on paper, created with all sorts of combinations of ink, acrylic, pencil, graphite, watercolor, etc. Artists with a large body of drawings gain my trust, as I believe that there's something deep about a compelling need among true artists to express themselves visually with whatever materials are at hand.

The exhibit at Matthew Marks certainly dissuades one from thinking that any one of Johns' images belongs to a specific decade and then abandoned in later years. He continues to recycle the whole bag of tricks - flags, flagstones, numerals, crosshatch patterns, alphabet letters, harlequin imagery, the bridge catenary, cruciforms, and maps of the United States. He's referred to these images, most of them from everyday life, as the "things the mind already knows." They're in his artistic DNA now and perhaps emerge involuntarily.

Johns' interpretation of Juan Gris, as depicted in a pair of drawings, suggests that he acknowledges his connection to many of the Cubists. Indeed, the imagery of the cubists find new echoes in Johns' works - the harlequins of Pablo Picasso, the target-like objects of Robert Delauney, and the presence of letters in cubist collage. "After Picasso," an ink and graphite drawing from 1998, explores the kind of hands and eyes that Picasso created in Guernica and related works, combined with Johns' characteristic crosshatching. The fact that Johns points to a longer artistic heritage in which he plays a part, in addition to his habits of drawing, elevates his work above that of many contemporary younger artists who feel compelled to substitute concepts for actual work.

I had one overarching impulsive reaction to seeing all this fine recent work by the elder statesman of American arts. It was "Johns wins."

Jasper Johns: Drawings 1997-2007 at Matthew Marks Gallery, 522 W. 22 St., continues through April 12, 2008

See also the review of Jasper Johns: Gray at the Met.

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