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Jasper Johns Short-Circuits Popular Perception

Works by this giant of 20th-century art introduce new ways of seeing

'I personally would like to keep the painting in a state of 'shunning statement,' " Jasper Johns has said of his work, "so that the experience of it is variable."

In "Jasper Johns: A Retrospective" at the Museum of Modern Art, this giant of 20th-century art has achieved his goal of willed ambiguity. The 225 paintings, works on paper, and sculptures from 1954 to 1995 guard their secrets like a combination lock awaiting a safe-cracker.

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An ideal review of his now-you-see-it-now-you-don't art would be a blank page wherein viewers record their own impressions. That's because Johns tweaks the mind to short-circuit habits of perception. He forces each viewer to encounter an image afresh.

In his early work, Johns painted public symbols like flags, targets, and numbers - things seen so often they become almost invisible. Instead of inventing an original design, he focused, he said, on "things the mind already knows," which "are seen and not looked at, not examined."

"Target with Four Faces" (1955) occupies a middle ground between the known and the new. Painted in encaustic (a mixture of pigment and wax) over strips of newspaper, the gummy surface shows the work to be a laboriously hand-painted representation. Yet because the target occupies the whole canvas, one wonders if it is the thing depicted rather than a depiction. Topped by a box with plaster casts of half-faces (visible when a hinged door is open), the painting suggests a private world hidden behind the public exterior.

The target paintings, like Johns's flags that inhabit an indeterminate zone between flag and picture, "can be both and still be neither," the artist has said. Sometimes his works' titles, like "Arrive/Depart" directly refer to this coming-and-going state of flux.

Viewers, take your time

Because his works are densely layered with both ideas and images, viewers shouldn't expect to breeze through the show in less than two hours. It's like an incomplete game of "Clue," where a trail of tips leads towards resolution.

Take "False Start" (1959), where the title gives some entr into the painting's mystery. Brushy strokes splash across the canvas in a parody of Abstract Expressionist excess. Your mind is off and running. Then Johns zaps you with an aesthetic jolt. (No mental torpor allowed here!) The names of colors on the patches of paint are a false lead; the name "red" is stenciled in orange over a burst of yellow. Instead of crossing the finish line to arrive at Meaning, you're back scratching your head at the starting block.

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"According to What" (1964) makes explicit (if anything about Johns's art can be called explicit) the artist's mantra of multiplicity. The title subverts the possibility of a single point of view, asking how (according to what perspective) does one meld all the disparate parts into a whole? In mixed media and mixed metaphors, Johns explores the subject of disjunction. Disparate objects like a twisted coat hanger and an inverted wooden chair thwart our ability to perceive facilely. "One wants to be able to use all of one's faculties, when one looks at a picture," Johns has said.

Johns creates art that demands an "interplay of the retinal and the mental," as curator Kirk Varnedoe puts it in the exhibition catalog. In so doing, Johns (with fellow artist Robert Rauschenberg) catalyzed a shift away from the spontaneity of Action Painting that dominated the 1950s. (California painter Ed Ruscha called Johns's painting "the atomic bomb of my education.") Johns legitimated intellectual (rather than subconscious and emotional) content in postwar art. With his painstaking application of encaustic (and later systematic repetition of motifs), Johns also hallowed craft and discipline, which had become devalued.

His use of accessible imagery laid the groundwork for Pop Art, and he further influenced movements like Minimalism and Conceptual Art. Like the concentric circles of his targets, Johns's influence has spread in ever-widening rings over the landscape of contemporary art.

A typical Johns device is his superimposing the numbers from zero to nine in an overlapping stack rather than stringing them out in a linear, progressive fashion. The breakdown of quantitative order mirrors the discordance between colors and their names in "False Start." Yet, although he denies sequential development in individual works, this retrospective is very Johnsian in showing his own continuous growth as an artist. Simultaneously, he doubles back to rework familiar motifs often drawn from art history and autobiography. In an era of fast takes, Johns brakes for ideas and often paradoxes that demand concerted attention.

Beyond 'Jester Johns'

He's much more than Jester Johns, Master of Deceit, even with his bag of trick images, which fluctuate back and forth like the optical illusion that is both a hare and a duck.

There's also sheer visual pleasure on display, with his sensuous, tactile surfaces. A high point is Johns's ink drawings on plastic, with their lovely, metamorphic quality of molten mercury.

In a series of cross-hatch paintings, like "Usuyuki" (1979), whitened chevrons intersect like a parquet floor. The name means "light snow" in Japanese (an allusion to fleeting beauty), and these works convey the delicate order of ice crystals or abstracted snowflakes.

As Johns wrote in an obituary for his mentor, Marcel Duchamp, the high potentate of 20th-century art: "He has changed the condition of being here." As for Johns himself, his work may be short on clarity but, by focusing on change as the human condition, he changes our ways of looking and knowing.

Two books accompany the exhibit a catalog, "Jasper Johns: A Retrospective" by Kirk Varnedoe and "Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, and Interviews," edited by Kirk Varnedoe (both published by MoMA and distributed by Harry N. Abrams Inc.). The exhibit remains in New York through Jan. 21 before traveling to the Museum Ludwig, Cologne (March 7-June 1, 1997) and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (June 28-Aug. 17). Information about the show can be found on the museum Web site at

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