Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Jasper Johns "Regrets" at the Museum of Modern Art

I wonder how many artists can call up the Museum of Modern Art, tell them they have a new series of work, and get an exhibition. That’s what it appears that Jasper Johns did for his exhibition there titled “Regrets.” I saw the notice in the NY Times and couldn't figure out what the images were. He took a photograph of Lucien Freud that was made in preparation for Francis Bacon’s portrait of Freud, the triptych that sold for some $142 million recently. In the Times article I couldn't really see the photograph or make anything out of the Johns painting illustrated, a wide grey thing with a black shape that looked like the back of a chair or maybe a pinafore and a thin ragged cluster of forms in various bright colors climbing up one side of the shape.
So it seemed like a good idea to go to the show. Not all of Johns’s work has been comprehensible to me, in the same way this newspaper image made no sense. Paintings are said to depict objects that I can’t discern, and I hoped the exhibition would help me understand how that works. It did. The exhibition walked viewers through Johns’s working process. First there was the photograph of Lucien Freud, legs crossed, head in one hand with the other arm across his body, sitting on a bed with a patterned bedspread. His face is not visible and the pose suggests distress. The photograph is badly torn across the bottom and at the lower left, apparently vestiges of Bacon’s method of using photographs.
The first Johns images are recognizable drawings of the photograph, but very soon he added a mirror image to make the format horizontal instead of vertical. There are several variants of both early versions. Eventually he re-drew the mirror version on mylar, noted in the labels as a technique he had enjoyed using recently. In these the entire work is sectioned in irregular shapes that still describe the image, sort of like puzzle pieces or “paint-by-numbers” sections, and each piece appears to have a pool of monotone liquid in it; amazingly the pool never touches the edge of the segments, so the white ground shows through.
The chair I thought I saw in the newspaper photograph was actually the blank area of the torn photograph doubled. Johns added eye sockets above the chair back, making an image I thought of as a face with aviator glasses, but the museum identified as a skull. Seen in the gallery, in the flesh, the figure of Freud is clearly discernible in almost every painting, drawing, and print, but in reproductions it is very difficult to see. In fact, the figure is so consistently the same that I wondered if Johns had made a template in order to be consistent in its form, and to help him repeat the mirror image well.  
In the first big painting, Johns used the grey segments of the mylar works, the dark “chair back” shape, and the skull, then he colored in some of the segments to the right of the chair. They don’t make the shape of the figure of Freud, but they do use some parts of it. It’s no wonder I couldn't figure out how the painting related to the photograph because the process had removed the imagery while still maintaining it. One could still make out the seated figure in the grey segments, but it wouldn't be discernible in a newspaper photograph, and it is difficult, if not impossible to discern in online images, for example the image on the MOMA website or the few reproductions associated with the Times review.
The labels explain that “Regrets” is part of a stamp Johns had made, “Regrets/J. Johns” to use in rejecting the multitude of proposals and offers he received. So, on the one hand it just refers to his daily life and the repeated process of refusing offers. But of course one also has to think of it as alluding to whatever one might regret, particularly as one nears the end of life, and perhaps to the options one might have taken, or not taken, in making these very works of art. And possibly Johns associated regrets with the pose of Freud in the photograph, which certainly suggests regret. Adding a skull, a frontal face, to the mirrored compositions certainly adds to this sense, although as I said above, I thought it looked more like a guy in aviator glasses than a memento mori.

All Johns’s versions of the subject seem to be variations on a visual theme, playing with the composition of the photograph, segmenting it and transforming it into other types of images, much more a compositional exploration than a delving into the possible feelings that the photograph might evoke. I came away fascinated with the artist’s process but not at all emotionally touched.

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