Contrasting sharply with the sunny,open mezzanine,the soft lighting and sparse placement of the works beg hushed reverence. The art can speak for itself.
Passing through the exhibit entrance,the trained artistic ear can almost hear the paintings,sketches and prints whispering furiously to one another.
“The installation is important to me because it allows us to represent relationships between works,the way the works speak to each other,” said Jeffrey Weiss,curator of the exhibit and head of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery. “It takes up a lot of space because the work wants to have space. It thrives in a certain spareness of installation,which we've produced here.”
Weiss spent three years assembling paintings for “Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting,1955-1965.” He is quick to point out that the exhibit is not a survey,but an in-depth examination of four motifs Johns employed in the first decade of his career: the target,the “device,” the stenciled naming of colors and the imprint of the body.
The exhibit is on display in the National Gallery's east building from Sunday through April 29. The museum is on the National Mall,at 4th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. It's near Metro's red line's Judiciary Square stop,the yellow and green lines' Archives stop and the blue and orange lines' Smithsonian stop.
Admission is free. Gallery hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information,visit the Gallery's Web site.
The post-war exhibit,which includes about half of Johns' work from the first decade of his career,details his use of images that lie between abstraction and recognizable symbols. The work also illustrates Johns' attention to the deliberate process of creation,Weiss said.
“That impact has everything to do with the physical nature of the work and also,conceptually speaking,with the idea that the painting or the drawing is an object,not just an image,and that it's something that is quantifiable,” Weiss said. “You can measure it with a ruler,you can violate it with a knife,you can take a bite out of it,literally,which Johns does in one of the pictures in the show.
“You can approach the work as a thing that you handle,that you carry around. It's almost like a piece of furniture or something that exists as much of an object as anything else,and that's very important.”
An arresting painted plaster cast of a target in red,yellow and blue,the first “ready-made” icon Johns explored,hangs at the start of the exhibit. Above the target,multi-colored casts of body parts lend the work an air of stilted realism.
“I think that in a fascinating way – it's almost subliminal – while all the work in this show is grounded in technical questions about process,by the time Johns reintroduces the figure,something very haunting and powerful begins to happen in relation to the way the body is represented in the work,” Weiss said.
Throughout the rest of the exhibit,which flows steadily through Johns' exploration of the compass arm as an art tool,the visualization of stenciled colors and varied prints of his own body,an unexpected continuity emerges.
“I did discover a set of relationships among these four motifs in the show,which are self-evident,I think,once you begin to observe them,but which had been buried in a way in the larger career. And I've found that extracting them told us something interesting about this period of time,” Weiss said.
Johns,76,who lives in Connecticut,New York and the French West Indies,contributed a portion of the 84 works from his personal collection. The remaining works are on loan from private owners,many of whom were initially uncomfortable placing their enviable possessions on display.
“The market value is actually very high,” Weiss said. “People are very queasy letting them out of the house,or the museum.”
Johns was expected to attend events before the exhibit's formal opening but is not expected to participate in any public events connected to the show,a museum spokeswoman said.
The challenge in displaying such a well-loved artist's work,Weiss said,is not in finding an audience,but in showing that audience something fresh.
“The familiarity that they have,I think,with Johns' work is hopefully something that will fall away when they come to this exhibition because I'm trying very much to restore its original peculiarity and strangeness,in a way,” Weiss said. “The work was very strange during the ‘50s and the ‘60s,and we've lost that because we're so used to it. I'm trying to retrieve that.”
“I would ask them to be absorbed,above all,because the work demands it. But it also rewards close observation,” he said.
“Once you get in,you get kind of lost. But it's rewarding – that's what looking at art is supposed to be. It's supposed to challenge,and also absorb you.”