August 15, 2014. It’s Friday afternoon. Free entrance to MoMA. The queue for tickets is about 45 minutes.
Being slowed down at the entrance somehow minimizes the emotional impact of the eventual encounter. Standing in a long line of people gives one the advantage of invisibility and coats the extraordinary with a certain protective sense of the ordinary.
Once inside the building, on the third floor, making one’s way to the Paul J. Sachs drawing galleries, following the inscription “Jasper Johns—Regrets,” one crosses the threshold of the Robert Lehman Foundation Inc. Gallery, which hosts Jasper Johns’s most recent exhibition. Only a modest number of works are on show: two paintings, ten drawings, two prints, and a few other pieces created by the artist between 2012 and 2014. There is a story to them. In June 2012, Johns stumbled upon an old photograph of the artist Lucian Freud (1922–2011), which had been reproduced in an auction catalog. In the photograph, the artist sits on a bed, holding his right hand to his forehead in a gesture of weariness or despair. Johns was inspired by the damaged appearance of the photograph itself and, in the months that followed, he carried it through a succession of permutations using a variety of media and techniques.
The word “regrets” is attached to the artist’s signature (“Regrets/Jasper Johns”) and so comes to be inscribed on most of the works on show. Although this title might normally carry a tone of sadness or disappointment, the word choice is not without irony. “Regrets” is also inscribed on a rubber stamp that Johns made several years ago to hallmark his declined requests and invitations to various events.
Initially, the meaning of the exhibition title is helpfully illuminated by a set of monotypes on ten separate sheets of Kurotani Kozo paper bearing images of Arabic numerals. A core motif in the painter’s personal iconography, the famous “numbers” stand for his past. Their proximity to the new work suggests that the title, besides referring to what the [End Page 193]artist has not been able to do, also points to an art that has always been in existence, in excess of his ongoing work. As the visitor proceeds through the gallery space, questions arise: when is a work finished? Is it finished when it becomes public (exhibited or published)? Is the creative process or product defined by the eye of the audience? What does it mean to “make” a work of art? As the questions form, Johns becomes strangely more present; his new work has the gentle, yet determined, power of an identity statement. In a certain way, “Regrets” embodies the image of a well-known painter stepping forward to show, in the clearest terms possible, who he is: a painter of the mind, whose work intimately joins thinking and making, mind and media.
The center of the room is occupied by “Regrets” (2013), oil on canvas, one of two large paintings ( fig. 1). The grays, the symmetry, and the labyrinthine patterns all evoke the gesture of the mind on canvas. As the curators explain in the exhibition catalog, the dark gray form at the center of the composition was created by mirroring the jagged edge of the photograph that inspired the series. 1 It is possible to recognize Johns’s signature palette made of a blend of soft hues, mauves, greens, violets, and browns; however, the routine formality of the signature quickly gives way to some other, more vibrant activity.
For example, his use of the photograph raises the question of the difference between object, material, and matter. The photographic reproduction of a fellow artist may initially act as an object of attention, but soon enough it transforms neither into a material object nor into raw matter, appearing instead as a supportive structure facilitating a practice of painting that is simultaneously a means of making anda site of thinking.
The second large painting in the...