Jasper Johns: Pictures within Pictures, Work 1980–2015

Image of Jasper Johns: Pictures within Pictures, 1980-2015
Release Date: 
November 14, 2017
Thames & Hudson
Reviewed by: 

“A bold and ambitious project, Jasper Johns: Pictures within Pictures, 1980–2015 serves as the most comprehensive collection to date of Johns’ mature work.”

Making a name for himself as an artist in the 1950s, Jasper Johns (now in his late 80s) is still maintaining an artistic presence. When he was in his 20s he released his flag paintings to much acclaim. Most people recognize them to this day, even if they are unaware of the artistic soul behind them. His more recent projects are lesser known, less identifiable, but no less intelligent or important.

While a U.S. flag, a target, or an abstracted U.S. state map (Johns’ early iconic motifs) may be easy for viewers to understand and categorize with just one glance, Jasper Johns: Pictures within Pictures is a necessary tour guide to understanding the forces behind Johns’ recent works. Without it, the pictures are just plain weird. They would be easy to look at, shake a head, shrug a shoulder, and dismiss. But that would be a shame.

Donovan serves as an interpreter of sorts, culling information from an array of sources and laying it out in seven chapters (and a particularly germane introduction) that follow more or less a chronological order of Johns’ major styles/series. This span of time is critical because Johns’ work is cumulative. With over 60 years of art to his credit, his work has evolved, becoming increasingly more complex, unpredictable, profound, enigmatic, multifaceted, and contradictory. The images he presents are “abstract and representational, conceptual and sensual.” They “allow for varied associations and a range of interpretations.” The guide book is essential in explaining Johns’ paradoxes.

Though self-reflective and contemplative, Johns is “an astute and absorbed conversationalist on a wide variety of topics, including art and artists, politics, gardening, the environment, food, and developments around the world.” His paintings reflect every bit of his intellect and curiosity, his fascinations, observations, and obsessions. An equally curious observer will be well rewarded by Johns’ unique perspectives.

Taking a dive down into The Seasons (mid 1980s), one would hardly pin point Spring, Summer, Fall or Winter just by looking at them (except maybe for Winter’s white snowflake splotches.) However, Donovan explains in detail the origin of each image in each panel.

One begins to see the connections to Picasso, Grünewald, Duchamp and Cézanne. One recollects the images from Johns’ own oeuvre. One learns how deeply Johns resonates with poetry and existential questions. One realizes double meanings on every inch of the canvases. One emerges, having witnessed 100 years of painting, composition and theory, gasping in awe.

Johns is also portrayed as an artist’s artist. He made a career out of innovative experimentation, mixed media (encaustic, oil, printmaking, collage, liquid metal, sculpture, found objects, etc), and the intentional appropriation of legendary artwork (Dürer, Goya, Magritte, Munch, etc). Never shying away from tough, unanswerable questions, he embraced elusive solutions and uncertainty. Consequently, many a younger generation no longer hesitated to do the same.

The language Donovan uses in this massive, textbook-like volume is not necessarily dry, but it is cerebral and dense. Loaded with sophistication, this reads somewhat like a doctorate thesis and is now and then hard to chew through. One suspects Donovan herself at times, and quite understandably, strained and toiled to understand and organize her subject matter. How to begin to make sense of such an enigmatic body of work? In Donovan’s defense, it would be difficult to do justice to Johns’ intellectual and creative capacity without an equally intelligent presentation.

Fortunately, nearly half the book consists of color reproductions. Full page spreads of important paintings and summary descriptions are interspersed throughout the chapters and help tame the basic ideas of the more heady content. A bold and ambitious project, Jasper Johns: Pictures within Pictures, 1980–2015 serves as the most comprehensive collection to date of Johns’ mature work.