Don’t Ask Him Why

Jasper Johns seems like a down-to-earth kind of guy. In an interview conducted by curator Nan Rosenthal, published in the catalog accompanying “Jasper Johns: Gray,” an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mr. Johns answers questions with Hemingway-like curtness. It’s a self-effacing performance. You didn’t have to be there to register his droll, deadpan demeanor.

Ms. Rosenthal quizzes the artist on his gray paintings and often comes away with … not much. Mr. Johns isn’t belligerent or evasive. Rather, he’s an artist deeply involved in the studio; he doesn’t give aesthetic matters much thought. He’s busy.

Ms. Rosenthal attempts to pin down Mr. Johns, at times with polite exasperation. “I don’t know” is a frequent response. Mr. Johns “thinks so,” “imagine[s]” and hasn’t “paid that much attention.” He doesn’t “really often think about gray.” Do the gray canvases differ from his other monochromatic pieces? “I think if you think it does, that’s for you to say.”

Anyone familiar with the oeuvre will recognize the answers as being typically Johnsian. His art is renowned for its refined, hermetic and curiously obvious strategies. Were the paintings, with their poker-faced appropriation of mass culture imagery, a refutation of Abstract Expressionism? “There was no art historical problem [for me],” he says. “I was not that sophisticated.”

It was impossible for artists working in mid-20th century Manhattan not to be aware of Abstract Expressionism’s hard-drinking ethos—it was inescapable. Mr. Johns, along with the considerably cheerier Robert Rauschenberg, looked to Marcel Duchamp’s gadfly cynicism to halt the AbEx juggernaut. They put into motion Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptual Art and the rest.

But the “unsophisticated” Mr. Johns puts a refreshingly unpretentious spin on the standard telling of postwar art. His work, he says, was the result of “part accident and part boredom.”

“Jasper Johns: Gray” is likely to confirm Mr. Johns’ standing as the elder statesman of American art or, as one dealer has described him, “the Rembrandt of our time.” The marketplace won’t have it any other way given the cool millions doled out for the work.

The show includes archetypal motifs: Flags, maps, numbers, words and, less well-known, biographical tangents. Except they’re gray.

How this color decision affects Mr. Johns’ dry irony is a question hardly worth asking. His art doesn’t stem from pictorial exploration, but from formula; materials follow schemes. “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it,” as Johns once put it. It was with this M.O. that he established his reputation. It’s no wonder that reams of verbiage surround the work. Literature picks up when the visual putters to a halt.

For Mr. Johns, color is a device that’s as good as another. A flag that’s gray instead of red, white and blue could be considered stately, I guess, but that’s all that you can say about it. Mr. Johns’ palette has been mostly arbitrary and always unfelt. Under his calculating hand, sensuality and metaphor are absent.

Mr. Johns comments on painting from the outside in. A conceptual artist who happens to use paint, his brush stroke is a deliberate cliché, and composition is purposefully simplistic (or absent) from his work. Obfuscation is the rule—you can’t get anywhere with the stuff. That’s the point, but once his overintellectualized gamesmanship is over and out, what’s left?

In later paintings, biographical references pepper the work—Racing Thoughts (1984) features Leo Castelli, Mr. Johns’ longtime dealer, and art historical icons (Mona Lisa is seen in the same work). But retrospection, in Mr. Johns’ hands, is a urinal—it’s ready made and all but meaningless. Engagement is beside the point.

Perhaps it’s Mr. Johns’ obtuseness that causes art historian Barbara Rose to divine within it allusions to Freud, Jacques Lacan and—oh, come on!—the Battle of Antietam. Elsewhere in the catalog, you’ll find passing comparisons to Goya, Proust, Wittgenstein, Beckett and, er, a stripper and a sadomasochist.

You have to wonder what Mr. Johns thinks of such analogies. Maybe he’d reply as he did in response to a question from Ms. Rosenthal: “No, I didn’t think of that.” And then he’d raise an eyebrow, and smile.

 

“Jasper Johns: Gray” is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, until May 4. Mario Naves can be reached at mnaves@observer.com.

Don’t Ask Him Why