Jasper Johns, Flag, 1967. Encaustic and collage on canvas (three panels). 84.138 x 142.24 cm. The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection. Art © Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
By Jian Huang
How many objects do we come across in a day? A few hundred? A few thousand? Think about the desk from which you are sitting as you read this article. What are the objects around? A pencil? A computer mouse? A cup of coffee? And of those objects with which we cross paths daily, how many do we see?
This critical thinking of the everyday, where we can look at many objects to make a whole, fits in the overall saturation of media. We were prepared for it by Jasper Johns.
His retrospective at the Broad museum, “Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth,’” begins with his most well-known piece, “Flag,” (1967). The 100 works in the exhibition span across six decades. “It all began with the American Flag,” Johns famously said. Now age 87, his work weaves through the defining decades of Modern Art, Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism, and is still influential to artists today. The art movements followed him.
Like his contemporaries Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, Johns’ body of work points to objects and the meanings with which we, as readers of objects, project onto them.
Johns gained notoriety during a unique time in US history. With World War II ending and the American economy bouncing back from a depression-era conservatism came the advent of modernity: prefab homes for the single-family, personal automobiles, and television sets. The world was limitless for us Americans; we even put an American flag on the moon.
“This exhibition is thematic rather than chronological,” said Joanne Heyler to the NY Times. Heyler, the Broad’s founding director who co-curated the exhibition stated, “With an artist like Johns — who returns many times, over decades, to motifs and ideas — is a very rewarding way to understand the work.”
As potent today as it was then, the curators organized the exhibit with “Flag” as the headlining piece. As the I meander through the exhibit from one room to the next, I get a sense of Johns’ arc as an artist from his earlier works, charged with the powerful politics of the time, to the intimate pieces he made during his relationship with Rauschenberg, to cross-genre collaborations with writers like Samuel Beckett, and ending on his contemporary paintings with recurring motifs of contemplation--rulers, eyes, the things we use to measure, the things we use to see.
Crossing the courtyard after the exhibit, I found myself asking, “What did I see?” Years of seeing these works in photographs cannot do proper justice to them. Two hours was hardly enough time to take in the extraordinary body of work of Johns--I would recommend at least two hours a day for two weeks. Even then, we can only begin to grasp as casual visitors the bigger question:who is Jasper Johns beyond the Flags?
Jasper Johns, "Untitled," 1992–4. Encaustic on canvas. 199.4 x 300.7 cm. The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection. Art © Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Jasper Johns 'Something Resembling Truth'
Feb 10 – May 13, 2018
The Broad museum
Downtown Los Angeles
Jian Huang is writer and a 2016 PEN Emerging Voice recipient. Raised in South LA, Jian graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in Art History and Communication and been involved with arts organizations, including LA County Arts Commission’s Civic Art Program, LA County Museum of Art, and Inner-City Arts. Jian served as past Chair for the Public Art Coalition of Southern California and Senior Editor for Angel’s Flight Literary West.