Skip to main content

Jasper Johns: On the Cold Gray Stones (A Review)

“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.

Comments

Thanks for this good review of Jasper Johns Gray Show, and especially for your references to Edisto Island, where I live and make art, and blog about the culture of Charleston and the Lowcountry. The island is like a great love affair: seductive and dangerous. We are the last undeveloped sea island in South Carolina, and thanks to local land trusts, and 6K acres owned by State Park, over half is preserved. The beach that I walk from my little place called Rosy, is Edingsville Beach, the title of a piece by Johns. (his half brother lives here, btw, and according to Concierge.com makes the best barbecue in the country: it is called Po Pig.(that poor,poor pig!) Come visit us.Thanks for an interesting piece.
Teri Tynes said…
Hi Charlotte,
Nice to meet you. Before I moved to NYC, I lived in Columbia, SC for several years and know and love Edisto. I plan to go back this summer for a brief but necessary vacation. It's great to know about your blog.

Popular posts from this blog

Museums in New York Open on Mondays

Please see this post for current announcements of reopenings . Please consult the museum websites for changes in days and hours. UPDATED September 23, 2020 Advance tickets required for many museum reopenings. Please check museum websites for details. • The  Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)  reopened to the public on  August 27 , with new hours for the first month, through September 27: from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday to the public; and from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.  on Mondays for MoMA members on ly. Admission will be free to all visitors Tuesday through Sunday, through September 27, made possible by UNIQLO. See this  new post on WOTBA for a sense of the experience attending the museum . •  New-York Historical Society  reopened on  August 14  with an outdoor exhibition, "Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine,” in the rear courtyard. The exhibit by activist Kevin Powell and photographer Kay Hickman will highlight how New Yorkers weathered the quarantine

25 Things to Do Near the Metropolitan Museum of Art

(updated) Sitting on the steps in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of those iconic things to do in New York City. On a sunny day, the wide steps can become crowded with the young and old, the tourist and the resident. It's tempting to stay awhile and soak in the sun and the sights. Everyone has reasons for lingering there, with one being the shared pleasure of people watching along this expansive stretch of Fifth Avenue, a painting come to life. Certainly, just getting off one's feet for a moment is welcome, especially if the previous hours involved walking through the entirety of art history from prehistoric to the contemporary. The entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue The Metropolitan Museum of Art should be a singular pilgrimage, uninterrupted by feeble attempts to take in more exhibitions along Museum Mile. Pity the poor visitor who tries "to do" multiple museum exhibitions in one day, albeit ambitious, noble, and uplift

25 Things To Do Near the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

(updated 2016) The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) at 11 W. 53rd Street is near many other New York City attractions, so before or after a trip to the museum, a short walk in any direction could easily take in additional experiences. Drawing a square on a map with the museum at the center, a shape bounded by 58th Street to the north and 48th Street to the south, with 7th Avenue to the west and Park Avenue to the east, proves the point of the area's cultural richness. (A map follows the list below.) While well-known sightseeing stops fall with these boundaries, most notably Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral, and the great swath of famous Fifth Avenue stores, cultural visitors may also want to check out places such as the Austrian Cultural Forum, the 57th Street galleries, the Onassis Cultural Center, and the Municipal Art Society. The image above shows an intriguing glimpse of the tops of two Beaux-Arts buildings through an opening of the wall inside MoMA's scu

Taking a Constitutional Walk

A long time ago individuals going out for a walk, especially to get fresh air and exercise, often referred to the activity as "taking a constitutional walk." The word "constitutional" refers to one's constitution or physical makeup, so a constitutional walk was considered beneficial to one's overall wellbeing. (Or, as some would prefer to call it, "wellness.") The phrase is more common in British literature than in American letters. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, many American commentators expressed concern that their countrymen were falling into lazy and unhealthy habits. Newspaper columnists and editorial writers urged their readers to take up the practice of the "constitutional" walk. One such essay, " Walking as an Exercise," originally printed in the Philadelphia Gazette and reprinted in New England Farmer , Volume 11, 1859, urges the people of farm areas to take up walking. City dwellers seemed to have the

A New York Spring Calendar: Blooming Times and Seasonal Events

See the UPDATED 2018 CALENDAR HERE . Updated for 2017 . At this time of year, thoughts turn to spring. Let's spring forward to blooming times, the best locations for witnessing spring's beginnings, and springtime events in the big city. While the occasional snow could blow through the city, we're just weeks now from callery pears in bloom and opening day at the ballpark. In The Ramble, Central Park. mid-April Blooming Times •  Central Park Conservancy's website  lists blooming times within the park. During the month of March we begin to see crocus, daffodils, forsythia, snowdrops, witch-hazel, and hellebores. Species tulips will emerge in several places, but the Shakespeare Garden and Conservatory Garden are particularly good places to catch the beginning of Spring blooms. Central Park near E. 72nd St., saucer magnolia, typically end of March. •  Citywide Blooming Calendar from New York City Department of Parks & Recreation April is u

25 Radical Things to Do in Greenwich Village

A list of 25 things to Do in Greenwich Village with history of protest, old cafes, and signs of change. Hipstamatic iPhone images of contemporary Greenwich Village by Walking Off the Big Apple (Revised and updated.) Flipping through  Greenwich Village: A Photographic Guide by Edmund T. Delaney and Charles Lockwood with photographs by George Roos, a second, revised edition published in 1976, it’s easy to compare the black and white images with the look of today’s neighborhood and see how much the Village has changed. A long shot photograph of Washington Square taken up high from an apartment north of the park, and with the looming two towers of the World Trade Center off to the distant south in the background, reveals a different landscape than what we would encounter today.    On the north side of the park, an empty lot and two small buildings have since given way to NYU’s Kimmel Center and a new NYU Center for Academic and Spiritual Center Life. The Judson Memorial Church

25 Things to Do Near the American Museum of Natural History

After visiting the American Museum of Natural History, explore attractions on the Upper West Side or in Central Park. Visitors to New York often run around from one major tourist site to the next, sometimes from one side of the city to the other, and in the process, exhaust themselves thoroughly. Ambitious itineraries often include something like coffee in the Village in the morning, lunch near MoMA, a couple of hours in the museum, a ride on the Staten Island Ferry in the afternoon, cocktails at the midtown hotel, a quick dinner, and then a Broadway show. It's a wonder people don't pass out at the theater. While sitting on the steps of the American Museum of History, consider exploring the Upper West Side and nearby sites of interest in Central Park. There's a better way to plan a New York trip. Consider grouping attractions together geographically. Several posts on this site address this recommended approach. The Wild West of the Tecumseh Playground Groupin

From Penn Station to New York Landmarks: Measuring Walking Distance and Time in Manhattan

(revised 2017) How long does it take to walk from Penn Station/Madison Square Garden to well-known destinations in Manhattan? What are the best walking routes ? What if I don't want to see anything in particular but just want to walk around? In addition to the thousands of working commuters from the surrounding area, especially from New Jersey and Long Island who arrive at Penn Station via New Jersey Transit or the Long Island Rail Road, many people arrive at the station just to spend time in The City. Some have questions. Furthermore, a sporting event may have brought you to Madison Square Garden (above Penn Station), and you want to check out what the city offers near the event. This post if for you.  The map below should help you measure walking distances and times from the station to well-known destinations in Manhattan - Bryant Park , the Metropolitan Museum of Art , the Empire State Building , Times Square , Rockefeller Center , Washington Square Park , the High Line

A Walk in the Forest Primeval

Contemplating the fall of civilizations in Inwood Hill Park At times, it feels like we’re living at the end of civilization. With the arrival of the global pandemic, many governing structures are teetering at a breaking point, one measured in graphs, curves, and waves. Whole systems like mass transit and global trade are fractured as well. Steps leading to a high ridge trail in Inwood Hill Park Most threatened are our social arrangements, the ones in which most of us were socialized. The norms of human interaction are shockingly in tatters these days. Just three months ago, it was normal to hang out with others in person without worrying if being in one another’s presence would cause illness or possibly death. Political and economic structures are teetering, with a critical collapse of what was once known as the public space. A Baltimore Oriole visits a tree near the main entrance of Inwood Hill Park on Seaman Avenue. It’s easy to imagine a swift evacuation of once pr

A Walk in NoLita, Sometimes Speaking French

To get to the New Museum of Contemporary Art on the Bowery from where I live in the Village I walk through the precious neighborhood of NoLita. I say "precious," because this neighborhood No rth of L ittle Ita ly is home to many attractive small boutiques and stylish bistros, and it feels like it could be bottled and sold for a large price. In fact, that's happening. The prices for several new condos in the neighborhood's attractive renovated Victorian-era buildings start in the six- and seven-million dollar range. And the proximity of the New Museum solidifies NoLita's stature as a hot neighborhood, with galleries, shoe boutiques and other art-friendly places popping up here and there. Walking along Prince or Spring toward the museum, I have several old and new, ecclesiastical and secular, places to note along the way: Buildings: The St. Patrick's Old Cathedral at Mott and Prince, served as the Roman Catholic Cathedral until the big St. Patrick's was