Last week, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art celebrated
the opening of its newest exhibition, ?Jasper Johns: The Prints.?
The exhibition traces the entirety of Johns? almost
five-decade career as a printmaker, beginning with the 1960 lithograph ?Target?
and continuing to 2007?s ?Within.?
The best way to categorize Johns? art is with a quote by
Johns himself, used by MMoCA curator Richard H. Axson in his description of the
exhibition: ?Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.?
Since Johns? work is as much about what he does with objects
as the objects themselves, it is helpful to have at least a rudimentary
knowledge of the methods he uses before looking at his work.
Fortunately, the exhibition has a corner dedicated to
education entitled ?What is a Print?? This display shows three of Johns?
methods ? intaglio, screen printing and lithography ? alongside accompanying
prints of the letter ?A? made using each technique.
After this primer, it is much easier to appreciate the
playfulness and sense of adventure with which Johns approaches his work.
This sort of background knowledge helps in understanding the
significance of Johns? use of other media in his prints. His creatively placed,
printed representation of the ?Mona Lisa? in the 1987 print ?The Seasons
(Summer)? is an excellent example.
By tilting the ?Mona Lisa? on its side, placing it beside
some of his own artwork and reproducing it in a different medium, Johns
encourages the viewer to think about what the classic means in this new
context. He does not merely copy the work of others; he takes samples and makes
them serve as an impetus for thoughts and reactions they would never have
incited in their original form.
Another way Johns allows the viewers to think new thoughts
and challenge their preconceived notions is through his representation of
In his 1977 lithograph ?Savarin,? he depicts a coffee can
atop a black table [CR1] filled with a variety of paintbrushes. Certain
characteristics of the work, however, allow for interpretation beyond this
First, Johns? rendering of the can reinforces the fact that
it is an image of an object rather than the object itself. It has an imperfect
surface with blotches of color missing from its exterior. Furthermore, though
it is shaded to give it depth, the shading is inconsistent, drawing attention
to the artist?s touch.
The background of the image also encourages the viewer to
look at the work with a critical eye. By setting the coffee can against a
background of streaks of primary colors rather than, for example, a grocery
store shelf, Johns de-contextualizes the object. This gives the viewer a chance
to consider it from a different critical angle.
Through such unorthodox rendering of the readymade item and
its customary setting, Johns invites the viewer to reconsider the relationship
between object and context, but he is not satisfied to consider this
relationship just once. Through his prints Johns rigorously examines and
reexamines this theme. In his series ?The Seasons,? he puts a variety of
objects ? among them a gray, featureless human figure and a monochromatic severed
arm ? through machinations that draw attention to humans? experience of the
Above all, ?Jasper Johns: The Prints? is about challenging
assumptions. Johns takes various media, works of art and readymade objects and
puts them in different contexts, allowing the reader to reconsider the
conventional interpretation of the object. Viewers may find this
de-contextualization either illuminating or unsettling, but it is sure to evoke
some feeling in anyone who approaches Johns? work with an open mind.
Gallery goers who might find themselves uninspired by his
exhaustive exploration of flags, targets and seasons need not feel
unsophisticated, though. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a coffee can is just a