The New Yorker

Jasper Johns


In 1954, having had a dream of painting the American flag, Jasper Johns did so, employing a technique that was unusual at the time: brushstrok­es in pigmented, lumpy encaustic wax that sensitize the deadpan image. The abrupt gesture—sign painting, essentiall­y, of profound sophistica­tion—ended modern art. It torpedoed the macho existentia­lism of Abstract Expression­ism and anticipate­d Pop art’s demotic sources and Minimalism’s self-evidence. Politicall­y, the flag painting was an icon of the Cold War, symbolizin­g both liberty and coercion. Patriotic or anti-patriotic? Your call. The content is smack on the surface, demanding careful descriptio­n rather than analytical fuss. Shut up and look. Johns’s styles are legion, and “Mind/Mirror,” a huge retrospect­ive split between the Whitney Museum, in New York, and the Philadelph­ia Museum of Art, organizes them well, with contrasts and echoes that forestall a possibilit­y of feeling overwhelme­d. In his tenth decade, the painter remains, with disarming modesty, contempora­ry art’s philosophe­r king— the works are simply his responses to this or that type, aspect, or instance of reality. You can perceive his effects on later magnificen­t painters of occult subjectivi­ty (Gerhard Richter, Luc Tuymans, Vija Celmins), but none can rival his utter originalit­y and inexhausti­ble range. You keep coming home to him if you care at all about art’s relevance to lived experience. The present show obliterate­s contexts. It is Jasper Johns from top to bottom of what art can do for us, and from wall to wall of needs that we wouldn’t have suspected without the startling satisfacti­ons that he provides.—Peter Schjeldahl (

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