The World Made Strange: Jasper Johns Between Expressionism and Pop
Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror, The Whitney Museum of Art, New York City, New York, September 29, 2021, through February 13, 2022
The received “discourse” among artworld historians goes something like this: Abstract Expressionism shifted the focus from Paris to New York City. With the help of critics like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, it established itself as the next step forward for painting. It sought to disclose events and experiences of cosmic dimensions: the tragedy of war and injustice (Motherwell), the numinous presence of the absolute (Rothko), the Dionysian frenzies of spontaneous action (Pollock), the sacredness of landscape stripped of detail (Still). It was the artistic equivalent of Existentialism in Philosophy. But Abstract Expressionism was undone by its own highbrow pretenses. It became stuffy and pompous. It was swept away by Pop art’s cool, ironic breezes, which had no affection for depth or the sublime. What Andy Warhol hath wrought was light rather than heavy, playful rather than earnest, pleasantly witty rather than intensely dramatic. His heirs — Oldenburg, Rosenquist, Lichtenstein — expanded the range of the pop sensibility and into comic books, impossible objects, and hyper-realistic airbrushed images of mass-produced commodities. The mantra of the movement was “Dig it!”
Like most official histories, this one obscures at least as much as it illuminates. Some abstract expressionists could be humorous (De Kooning comes to mind), and Warhol’s own studied blank indifference could get quite ponderous at times (e.g., the Empire State Building film, silkscreen after silkscreen of Elvis and Marilyn and the Reagans). But this observation still leaves the generic categories of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art intact, with sharp conceptual edges.
The great merit of the Jasper Johns retrospectives, shown simultaneously at the Whitney Museum in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is that it gives a clear display of how Johns’ work consistently blurs those boundaries. It is not exactly a hybrid of Ab-Ex and Pop, nor does it transcend those categories entirely. Johns had a knack for taking what he wanted to take from each of those genres and putting his own unique stamp on it. It is both heavy and light, earnest and ironic. Mashing up…