Jasper Johns: a brand new kind of museum exhibition
The Mind/Mirror retrospective offers an exhaustive exploration of the artist’s 70-year career. Here, curators Carlos Basualdo and Scott Rothkopf discuss the show’s unique concept
Museum retrospectives of major figures often qualify as ‘sprawling,’ but a recently opened exhibition lends new meaning to the term.
Rather than the customary presentation organised by two or more institutions and travelling between them, Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror presents complementary, simultaneous exhibitions at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and, 100 miles to the southwest, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Both institutions have long histories of collecting and exhibiting the 91-year-old artist.
Organised by Carlos Basualdo, the Philadelphia Museum’s senior curator of contemporary art, and Scott Rothkopf, the Whitney’s senior deputy director and chief curator, this distinctive exhibition concept allows for a much deeper exploration of a 70-year career than any one museum could host alone; neither curator was able to think of any precedent.
One of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Jasper Johns, born in 1930, was a leading member — along with Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham and John Cage — of a generation of New York artists who followed the Abstract Expressionists. His early work contrasts that of his predecessors in its dispassionate look, in his paintings, at everyday objects like flags, letters, numbers — objects he famously described as ‘things the mind already knows’.
He has continued to challenge viewers ever since, rigorously experimenting in media including sculpture and printmaking, in which he has deeply explored art historical motifs including the Mona Lisa and Mattias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. Previous retrospectives have been organised by the Museum of Modern Art in 1996 and, in 2012, by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
‘The show was a kind of experiment, and there’s the beauty of it,’ said Basualdo. ‘What I always dream of is a show whose very experience tells you something about the artist, and not just the content. That’s the way we normally think about shows, is that they have content, and the content tells you about the artist. What if the very structure of the show is informative in relationship to the artist?’
Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror is structured around 10 ‘methodological lenses’, as the curators describe them, each expressed with distinct works at the two venues. For example, John’s exploration of place is presented via his relationship to Japan at the Philadelphia Museum, and his links to South Carolina are put forth at the Whitney.
His exploration of early motifs such as flags, targets and numbers, which the curators point out would lay the foundations for art forms such as Pop and certain strains of Conceptualism, are represented through flags and maps in New York and numbers in Philadelphia.
In this way, each exhibition aims to offer a thorough overview of the artist’s expansive body of work for those who will see only one show, without being repetitive for dedicated viewers who travel to see both. Rather, the two shows will engage in a dialogue through time and place.
The show’s title, Mind/Mirror, suggests not only the presentation of concepts springing from the artist’s mind, but also the fact that mirroring is a formal and conceptual device Johns has used throughout his career. In a self-reflective way, the title suggests how the two exhibitions, after a fashion, mirror one another.
What’s more, the curators acknowledge, it suggests how they themselves mirrored one another’s work, conceiving complementary checklists, installing reciprocal galleries, and expressing cognate conceits in Johns’s work.
‘I keep thinking about this idea of finishing each other’s sentences,’ says Rothkopf, ‘but perhaps not always how the person who began the sentence imagined they would end, and that’s been a very beautiful thing to experience.
‘This took place even in the gap between the conception and the creation of the checklists, which we did totally together for 10 paired galleries. But we each took the lead on different ones. Then we gave the 10 galleries to each other like a gift: “These are yours now. Go and make something of them. Finish the sentence.”’
The exhibition had been planned to open the week before the 2020 presidential election, but was postponed owing to the pandemic. For that reason, some works have taken on different valences.
‘Context is key in terms of Jasper’s work,’ Basualdo observes. ‘We were imagining one context. For example, the room at the Whitney with the flags and maps would be read in a very specific way as a comment on an America that has always been to a certain degree divided, and at that time was very painfully divided. Although Jasper has never done work that can be described as political, there are political implications that operate at many levels.’
Here, Rothkopf jumps in, as if finishing Basualdo’s sentence, describing a conversation with educators at the Whitney. ‘People were asking if some of the late works, the skeletons, let’s say, were done in response to the pandemic, whereas they actually predate it by a year or two.
‘But we both chose to end the show with a sense of elegy and mortality in Jasper’s late work, and it will be perceived so differently by our audiences, with people having experienced a different sense of their own mortality or having lost loved ones or friends. It’s kind of strange and moving how resonant those galleries feel.’
Curators know their exhibition spaces inside and out. Shows are planned down to the inch. Basualdo and Rothkopf are intimately familiar with Johns’s works. And yet they express surprise at seeing the exhibitions in the flesh, and certainly at how the two exhibitions inform one another.
‘One of the interesting things to me has been how sometimes, although we discussed certain decisions in advance, until they were realised on the walls, it was hard to understand how they might feel’ says Rothkopf.
‘For example, with the two galleries about the early motifs, the flags and maps at the Whitney and the numbers in Philadelphia, we used different display methodologies on purpose. We generated the checklist very differently. We thought, for the flags and the maps we would have a few examples in a stately enfilade, and for numbers we would have many more examples, and they’ll be exhibited in a profusion, almost like a cloud of endless counting.
‘The experience of those two galleries is so different, and yet each one enlivens something about the material on display and Jasper’s thought process in a really beautiful way. So not only did we have galleries that complemented each other with their contents, but also with their mise en scène.’
‘Both were a surprise,’ says Basualdo. ‘The maquette is very good but it didn’t give me a full sense of the relation between the scale of the work and the scale of the museum.’ He couldn’t fully anticipate the physical experience of the works in space, he says.
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‘I feel how the spaces echo each other,’ he continues. ‘I keep thinking about the connection between the two venues. We wanted people to imagine how the works are in one place while they were in the other, but it was hypothetical.
‘The night after I saw the show at the Whitney, I woke up at three in the morning with racing thoughts. I couldn’t stop thinking about integrating the shows in my mind. I’m still doing that.’
Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art and at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until 13 February 2022