Jasper Johns: Smog Alert

The Metropolitan Museum of Art takes a long look at Johns's 'Gray' matter

Still, the occasional gem shines through. In 1978's Celine, Johns leavens two favorite motifs—crosshatch and flagstone patterns—with his oft-used handprints, which are reminiscent of those in Pollock's effulgent Number 1A, 1948. Here, the upstart resolutely strips his elder's flash of ornery ego down to a snazzy design element. Snippets of orange and green spike Celine's mauve-tinged grays, while literal and painted fractures between its two joined canvases create lovely visual grit—painting for the gut, not just the cerebral cortex. But then we come to Winter (1986), part of Johns's "Four Seasons" quartet. In this encaustic painting, a silhouetted figure is surrounded by mundane objects, a handprint making a gestural arc, and a cartoon snowman. Illustrational and as blunt as a comic book, it has none of that genre's brash flair and little of the élan the artist once brought to his signature medium. This is high-end product, its themes ticked off in some mental register like options for the hubcaps and interior of a luxury sedan.  

Visual grit: Celine, 1978
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Visual grit: Celine, 1978

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'Jasper Johns: Gray'
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
Through May 4

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The final gallery surrounds you with hulking canvases from Johns's "Catenary" series (named for the curve made by a cord hanging from two horizontally aligned points). Drooping arcs of actual string and their painted or deeply scored echoes span these large encaustic fields. Move in close and the variegated grays completely fill your vision, but the sensation is of sclerotic smog rather than the numinous moral, aesthetic, and intellectual provocations of White Flag. These closing curtains, like too much that comes before, feel shriveled and enervated—a mummy's tomb with the good stuff already looted.

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