Last week I had lunch with an old friend who follows Modern and Contemporary art with the resolve and expertise of a bloodhound, even though he doesn’t earn his living from tracking pictures. He asked if I’d seen the show of Jasper Johns’ very newest work now on view at MOMA, and I confessed that I hadn’t. But thanks to my friend’s urging a few days ago I visited it. Visited it for the first time, that is. The show is such a revelation about the way one artist’s mind works that I need to see it several times.
The show — as well as the big painting at the center of it — is called Jasper Johns Regrets. Maybe in the next installment of this blog I’ll have more to say about the title, but for the moment all I can think about is the revelation of what art historians have been fond of calling an artist’s “old-age” style. (I once heard a talk about Raphael’s “old-age” style, even though he died suddenly on his 37th birthday. Academic fashions can make fools out of smart people who ought to know better.) On May 15th Jasper Johns will be 84 years old and that’s why the style of this new work may justly be called “old-age.” He’s still turning out masterpieces.
Even while Johns, Rauschenberg, and Warhol, all gay men, were giving the finger to the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, hyper-butch Abstract Expressionists in the late 1950s, it was easy to see that underneath the outrageousness there ran through Johns’ work a profound commitment to the physical act of painting and to the life that paint, when applied with skill, intention, and taste, can quicken on a canvas. In that way he was no different from, say, Pollock or de Kooning. Jasper Johns was then, and remains to this day, as much a painter’s painter as they — or as Manet and Monet, or as Watteau and Boucher, or as Rembrandt and Velázquez.
What these painters have in common is their artistic descent from the great Venetian painter Titian (c1489 – 1576), who made paint sexy. Their descent from Titian came not only through the traditions in which they were taught, but — more important — through their own careful study of his works. Our obsession with innovation, mistakenly thought to be synonymous with originality, blinds us to the plain fact that ever since the Renaissance, art-making has been primarily (I would argue) the business of artists responding to other artists. That isn’t “art for art’s sake.” But it is a professional tradition comparable in its way to a legal system that relies on precedent as the foundation for true innovation.
Jasper Johns Regrets is a prolonged lesson in how that centuries-old habit of thinking is alive in the work of one of the country’s most gifted artists. The immediate stimulus for Johns was a reproduction of a photograph of Lucian Freud in a sale catalogue. The picture was taken on order for Francis Bacon, and it led to Bacon’s famous 1969 triptych of Freud that sold last autumn for $142 million. I found it impossible to look at the recent Johns works without thinking about them, at least in part, as a series of comments on Bacon’s stimulus.
But in the MOMA gallery we are far from the grotesque hullabaloo stirred up around the sale of the Bacon. We enter a serene gray cocoon lined mostly with works on paper that are variations on the themes Johns found in the photograph. The intelligence of a very great artist hangs in the air we move through, gently inviting us to look with him, to see with him, to learn from him just as he learned from artists before him. At the time when Jasper Johns has taken his place among the ranks of canonical 20th-century masters, the works in Jasper Johns Regrets reveal a deep humility and reverential affection for the distinguished lineage of which he is a worthy heir.