Meet the press, in album of Jasper Johns reviews

April 18, 1993|By Daniel Grant


Edited by Susan Brundage.

Harry N. Abrams.

100 pages. $35. The last 35 years have been quite good for Jasper Johns, an artist who gained immediate renown in 1958 with his first exhibition of paintings of American flags and targets at New York City's Leo Castelli Gallery.

The show was good for both artist and dealer, in fact, as it helped to establish Castelli as a dealer to watch.

But Johns was an artist who dared to move away from the strict canons of abstract expressionism (that art is about its own materials, shapes, colors, volumes and processes) to create highly recognizeable forms, but created in such a cool and aloof manner as to strip these forms of their emotional or narrative content.

This large, spiral-bound book is not the usual art book. Rather, it offers a selection of press write-ups of the one-man shows the artist had at the Castelli gallery beginning in 1958 and continuing through 1991. In this regard, "Jasper Johns" is a history of art journalism, with the artist as the focus of all the attention. We read what writers said about his work over time, revealing (as is true of all critics) as much about themselves as about the subject.

We read magazine reviews by Dore Ashton, Edward Lucie-Smith, Barbara Rose, Robert Rosenblum, Irving Sandler and Leo Steinberg in the years before they began devoting their writing to books and other scholarly investigations. There is a 1960 ARTS write-up by Donald Judd, who supported himself for a time through reviews before his minimalist sculpture began to pay off later in that decade, as well as installation shots and portraits by such struggling (and later renowned) photographers Richard Avedon, Rudy Burckhardt and Jill Krementz. Mr. Johns' fame rose with those who wrote about him and took his picture.

One of the first notices is a press release from the Castelli gallery about that 1958 exhibit, next to largely favorable reviews in the New York Times, ARTnews, Newsweek and Mademoiselle. It was painter and sometime art critic Fairfield Porter whose enthusiastic review of that first Johns show in ARTnews helped turn the editor's opinion in Johns' favor, leading to one of the artist's pictures being used for the magazine cover in January 1958. Not every writer was fond of Johns' work every time. The New York Times' reviewer described that first exhibit as "all very puzzling."

And a write-up of the artist's 1960 show in the New York Herald Tribune was mixed: "His is still a limited and mannered style but, for some strange reason, he projects vitality and promise."

Harold Rosenberg, never altogether friendly to post-abstract expressionist art, wrote in a magazine article in 1966 that Johns and some contemporaries mocked the heroic aspirations of abstract expressionism: "The art of [Larry] Rivers, [Robert] Rauschenberg and Johns was the pivot on which painting and sculpture swung from exploring the artist's own mind to analyzing and manipulating the mind of its public." Some critics ZTC might have been just as happy if Johns had quietly disappeared.

The overwhelming majority of selected reviews, however, are positive to the point of ecstatic. This book is actually a celebration of Johns' career and doesn't seek to open up any old debates.

Certainly, the main differences between the type of writing found in a regular Jasper Johns study, or coffee table book, and magazine or newspaper write-ups are the hurried-up style, the use of dramatic language and the hunt for a news peg.

"Arriving hot on the heels of Roy Lichtenstein's 96-foot mural which was painted on the wall of the same gallery," a reviewer for the Times of London wrote.

"The biggest gallery event in New York this month," a Wall Street Journal critic proclaimed in his lead.

"Jasper Johns' 'The Four Seasons' yields the same species of satisfaction as Picasso's sketchbooks gave us last year," New York Newsday's critic began.

There is a paradoxical quality of casting journalism within the context of the 35-year career of one of this country's most remarkable artists, but the effect is revealing of both Johns and the times in which he has lived.

Mr. Grant is a writer who lives in Amherst, Mass.

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