Though posters of his work may not grace as many dorm room walls as those of his contemporary Andy Warhol, artist Jasper Johns is being celebrated at Yale this spring.
“Reliable Tension, or: How to Win a Conversation about Jasper Johns,” a new exhibition featuring works by 20 contemporary artists in a variety of mediums, opened yesterday at the Yale School of Art’s 32 Edgewood Gallery.
The contentious conversation in the art world surrounding Johns inspired the exhibit, said Yale School of Art critic John Pilson, who curated the show. Pilson explained that the dialogue surrounding Johns consists of affinities rather than arguments and so is impossible to win, adding that the artist is famous for giving elusive answers in interviews. The exhibit examines these ideas of contradiction and language in addition to exploring conscious and subconscious chains of influence in contemporary art, Pilson said.
“Johns is a mystery,” Pilson said. “He was a lead, and I followed it.”
Many of the works in the exhibition explore paradox, or, in Pilson’s words, “having it both ways:” Works are simultaneously literal and abstract, familiar and uncanny, historically conscious and modern, or ready-made and yet deeply dedicated to craft.
Johns is famous for depicting objects so ordinary that viewers are forced to question their assumptions about those objects. Pilson cited Johns’s paintings of the American flag as an example of his characteristic use of iconography.
“[Johns’ work] is like alchemy,” Pilson said, adding that the same is true of many pieces in the exhibit. “You see if two objects can create a third thing while still retaining their integrity.”
Pilson explained that because he is an artist curating an exhibit, he organized the show based on his intuition rather than on a particular historical logic or trained curatorial practices.
Some of the work of artist Stuart Elster ART ’93 featured in the show consists of pieces of Marc Jacobs bags stretched onto panels and painted. Elster’s pieces use the text on the bags, such as “Marc by Marc Jacobs” or “Jacobs by Marc Jacobs,” as the indexes of the paintings, Elster said, adding that his work, like Johns’, addresses linguistic confusion.
“The text [on the bags] is a meta-corporate self-portrait, and the irony of the branding is self-aware,” Elester said. “Language is an image that stands in for something else, and there are multiple or contradictory meanings embedded within my work.”
Pilson explained that Johns seems to approach language and visual art in the same way: Johns’ circuitous speech, like his visual artwork, addresses the problem of abstraction, and Johns refuses to editorialize either.
The only literal reference in the exhibit to Johns’ painting lies in a work of embroidery by Elaine Reichek ’64. An iteration of Johns’s target paintings is surrounded by quotes about whiteness in its political and aesthetic connotations and other patterns stitched in white. Reichek explained that the repetitive brushstrokes of Johns’ target resonate with the texture of her own medium.
Other works in the exhibition include videos, an ATM and a sound installation without visible speakers.
Pilson said that Dean of the School of Art Robert Storr issued an open call for exhibitions in the space and that Pilson proposed the idea for the exhibit last spring. All of the works in the show come directly from the artists’ studios or are loans Pilson has negotiated with individual artists.
“Reliable Tension, or: How to Win a Conversation about Jasper Johns” will be on display through March 28.