Jasper Johns is an American iconoclast. Deftly maneuvering between different styles, but never committing to just one, it is obvious from the SFMOMA’s current exhibition of his works that Johns was inspired by all facets of life. The exhibit, “Jasper Johns: Seeing with the Mind’s Eye,” is a retrospective of the 82-year-old’s prolific career, culminating in his newest piece, “Bushbaby,” which has never been shown before.
Johns is known for his repetition of iconography in multiple media. He fixates on an image and presents it in multiple lights. Johns’ ability to disconnect a sign from its original meaning allows the image to flourish as artistic inspiration.
The first room of the exhibit is dedicated to Johns’ representation of “figures.” This is the non-representational name he gave the digits zero through nine, either transposed on top of each other or separately on individual canvases. The repetition of these figures decontextualizes them, especially in his color and black-and-white numeral series. Specifically, the “7” in the color series (1968) incorporates an image of the “Mona Lisa” as well as Johns’ own handprint. By stripping the numbers of their context, Johns gives these figures a whole new meaning. What is the difference between the “Mona Lisa” and a number? The artist’s handprint seems to be saying that they’re both just symbols, simple representations of lines in certain patterns that can be delineated in essentially similar ways. `
During his lightbulb fixation throughout the 1960s, Johns created representations of illuminators, cut off from the power sources that allow the light to emit. Once again, dissuading the viewers from involving cultural connotations in the enjoyment of his work, Johns uses various media from graphite on paper to Sculp-metal, a malleable substance like lead.
“Light Bulb,” created in 1966, shows a lightbulb dissected like a middle school science project into its three distinct parts: cord, screw and bulb. This intensifies the distinction between what we know to be a lightbulb from everyday use, and what qualifies as art to Johns.
The flag room in the exhibit displays a group of Johns’ most iconic pieces. The most striking is “Flag,” a print of an American flag made in 1972 and painted over in green, black and orange in 1994. By inverting the colors of the nation’s proudest symbol, Johns is toying with the constituents that create an image.
The earlier works of Jasper Johns could be tritely described as a pop-art reappropriation of Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades.” Johns takes something his audience is familiar with, calls it art and then shows that it can be art by repeating the image in various forms. Johns once said that he developed imagery from “things the mind already knows.” However, each iteration of the imagery buries the actual meaning of the object more fully while releasing the object’s creative potential.
Johns soon started branching out in his subject matter, becoming more experimental. In 1963, he created “Periscope,” the first of a few paintings inspired by Hart Crane’s poetry. Johns took non-representation to a new plateau by incorporating the stenciled words “yellow,” “red” and “blue” in colors that did not reflect their names.
The final installment of the exhibit is “Bushbaby,” created in 2005. Continuing with the themes in his ‘90s paintings like “The Bridge,” it is a very large canvas painted with encaustic and adorned with objects. Incorporating recent motifs like a diamond pattern reminiscent of a harlequin’s costume, string and wood, Johns takes non-representation even a step farther.
Whether repeating an image to break down preconceived notions or by avoiding subject matter altogether, Johns has tried to blur the line between art and life throughout his career. This retrospective gives an accessible account of specific motifs as well as a sense of continuity in Johns’ portfolio.