Art is a tricky thing; just because something is almost universally accepted as great and canonical is no guarantee that any one of us, individually, will love it. Such is my struggle with Jasper Johns. While he's acclaimed as one of the leading American artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, there's something about much of his work that leaves me a little ambivalent.
That's not to say it isn't a major accomplishment for the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) to have organized "Jasper Johns: The Prints," the largest array of the artist's prints ever shown in the Midwest. The show encompasses 100 lithographs, screenprints and intaglios made between 1960 and 2007.
Now 77, Johns has worked in both painting and printmaking for about half a century. His prints often repeat familiar motifs from his paintings like flags, targets, maps, numbers and letters. Perhaps these images have become so iconic in the history of modern art that it's difficult to see them with new eyes. That said, this show does an excellent job tracing the development of Johns' work over time.
For me, the freshest, most enjoyable part of the show is the later work, from the early '80s and beyond. Part of the reason is that it seems less quintessentially Johns; he begins to move past some of the earlier motifs and explore more personal terrain. Elements like old family photos incorporated into the prints give them a touch of autobiography that is pretty much scrubbed out of the early work. The later Johns seems less restrained, as if he's finally let a little breath out. He also begins to play with art-historical references, making visual quotations of artists from Leonardo da Vinci to Hans Holbein.
Part of what puzzles me about Johns, frankly, is that he takes inspiration from someone like Marcel Duchamp (the series "Fragment - According to What," on view here, is considered an homage to Duchamp) yet doesn't seem to share the Dada master's sense of anarchic fun. Duchamp made up a gender-bending alter ego, put a mustache on the Mona Lisa and displayed a urinal as art, all in the early decades of the 20th century. It's nearly impossible to imagine Johns doing any of that.
One could also compare Johns' work with that of Chuck Close, who recently enjoyed a large retrospective at MMoCA. While Close's work gives us a larger-than-life intimacy through oversized human faces, Johns' earlier work holds to the self-imposed limitations of certain symbols. As Johns himself comments in a video playing in the galleries, "My work became a constant negation of impulses."
Yet of the earlier work using Johns' familiar symbols, one of my favorites is "Flags II" from 1973. A screenprint all in grays and blacks of two vertical American flags, it's got a mournful quality that, if you're so inclined, takes on extra resonance now, just as it would have during the Vietnam War.