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Jasper Johns's "Target with Four Faces," from 1955. Encaustic and collage on canvas with objects. The Museum of Modern Art, New York; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert C. Scull 8.1958. © 2021 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photograph by Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics, Rockford, Illinois
Jasper Johns's "Target with Four Faces," from 1955. Encaustic and collage on canvas with objects. The Museum of Modern Art, New York; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert C. Scull 8.1958. © 2021 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photograph by Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics, Rockford, IllinoisJamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics, Rockford, Ill.; © 2021 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

NEW YORK — The fifth floor elevators at the Whitney Museum of American Art whisk open to a kaleidoscope of Jasper Johns. It’s a broad and restless confrontation of the work of one of the country’s best-known artists — flags and targets, crosshatches and maps, bright color and dun-gray — and among its most inscrutable. Nose to nose with this constellation of works, it then offers you a choice, though it’s really no choice at all: Left or right, both ways lead to darkness.

You’ll know Johns best for his canny and serial use of familiar emblems and symbols: “things the mind already knows,” he once said, a hook slyly set with easy-to-swallow bait. His works might have a veneer of the playful — big textbook maps of America smeared with bright swatches of paint, handmade number grids from zero to nine in an array of colors and materials — but they’re not. Instead, they’re bleak, obsessive, furtive-seeming; a cool critique of the oppressions of the everyday, structures built to contain the uncontainable.


Within them, the artist could disappear, and most often did. But “Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror,” a new and comprehensive retrospective so vast it spills from the Whitney to a parallel exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, draws the artist himself closer to the surface than perhaps ever before. It is, surprisingly and frequently, personally revealing and even confessional — anathema to Johns’s formative era and milieu, where cold formalism reigned. It’s also why the show is so captivating: Despite his protestations to the contrary, I’m not sure there was ever a subject of Johns’s work more trenchant than himself.

Installation view of "Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror" at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Installation view of "Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror" at the Whitney Museum of American Art. © Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Matthew Carasella

The museums are equal partners in the endeavor, and passages of each exhibition refer directly to one another. They’re parallel in that one doesn’t pick up where the other leaves off; they function both together and alone. Having seen only the New York portion, my own impression is less incomplete than particular, though I know clever counterbalances have been struck throughout (“Flag,” 1954-55, Johns’s first-ever flag painting, made in New York and owned by the Museum of Modern Art a few dozen blocks uptown, hangs at the entrance of the Philadelphia show). But you could see either or both and leave sated, and with a freshly intimate view of an artist for whom inscrutability has been a career strategy.


Johns, who never trained as an artist, had an intuitive sense of what made art, art: a way to make the comfortable strange, often with the deftest of nudges. In American art, he bridges so many significant moments: After he arrived in New York in 1953 from South Carolina following his discharge from the Army, his work with signs, symbols, and everyday objects reinvigorated Dadaism and presaged pop and conceptual art all at once; he was key in a cohort that would leave Abstract Expressionism, by then creaking under the weight of its own self-importance, in the dust.

Johns’s footprint here and in Philadelphia says something big about his quietly towering presence: Even Andy Warhol filled only the Whitney for his own retrospective in 2018, in these same galleries, though he could easily have sprawled to every museum in the city. There’s another key difference, too: Johns hasn’t had a major retrospective here or anywhere else since 1996, at the Museum of Modern Art; Warhol’s been framed and reframed so many ways since his death, freshness is ever a challenge, though museums are always game to try for marquee value. Johns, 91, is still working regularly in his Connecticut studio, making “Mind/Mirror” the rare art-historical blockbuster in which the artist is an active part.


I like to think that might be why “Mind/Mirror” is so jarringly personal for an artist who for years has been at once ubiquitous and unknowable, his symbology both seductive and an effective shield. At the Whitney, Johns himself seems finally to emerge from behind iconographic Americana freighted with the politics of anti-jingoism for which he’s so well known (messing with the flag, any artist who’s done so will tell you, inevitably ignites ugly debate).

Jasper Johns's "Painting Bitten by a Man," from 1961.
Jasper Johns's "Painting Bitten by a Man," from 1961.© 2021 Jasper Johns / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. The Art Institute of Chicago; Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics, Rockford, Ill.

Some passages of the show are deeply intimate. In a chapter of the exhibition titled “Disappearance and Negation,” four pieces bleed heartache. Johns made them in the aftermath of his breakup with his romantic partner of seven years, the artist Robert Rauschenberg, whom he met just months after arriving in New York. Rauschenberg, bracingly fluent in a breadth of materials and techniques, was upending the art world with his mash-up works that merged painting, screen printing, and sculpture as one. Johns revered him, calling him “the first true artist I ever knew.”

His works here are jarringly autobiographical: “Liar,” 1961, an inky patch of metal skinned with dark encaustic; “Good Time Charley,” 1961, with a tin cup overturned on an ashen surface trailing an arc of paint, a likely reference to Rauschenberg’s easy, glad-handing charm. In the visceral “Painting Bitten by a Man,” 1961, pale tracks of tooth marks are scored into the waxy gray surface. Johns often used encaustic, and may be its most revered practitioner, employing its fleshy surface as a textural counterpoint to his otherwise-ordinary symbols. Here, there’s no formal mystery to it: It’s simply pain.


Pain, of course, was more the turf of his AbEx predecessors, whose tortured canvases bled with a deliberate angst. Johns, I always felt, was an agent of subtle force, coolly bending familiar symbols back on themselves to destabilize simplistic meaning. The Whitney provides ample evidence. One big gallery here is filled with famous works of maps and flags: pieces dominated by dark grays and blacks on one wall, brightly-colored works on the other.

Jasper Johns's "White Flag," from 1955.
Jasper Johns's "White Flag," from 1955.© 2021 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Jamie Stukenberg

The space is capped with the towering “White Flag,” from 1955. For me, it’s always been a ghostly monument; it conveys a sense of fading optimism as postwar euphoria crumbled into national anxiety in the grip of an escalating Cold War and rising racial tensions. Johns, of course, brushed off any such topicality — with its fatty swaths of translucent wax veiling gray newsprint beneath, the piece was “no more about a flag than it is about a brush stroke or about a color or about the physicality of the paint,” he once said, because of course he would. To assign political or emotional intent to the work would betray himself as a human in the world, and that would never do.


Johns had mostly abandoned outright feeling in his work a year or two before, when, after arriving in New York in 1953, he met Rauschenberg and shortly after destroyed everything he’d ever made. In Rauschenberg’s company, he connected with the city’s gay avant-garde, notably the choreographer Merce Cunningham and the composer John Cage, a couple who were redefining their respective media, too, and laying the groundwork for a nascent art world where the silos of the various orthodoxies — painting and sculpture, performance and music — would all bleed into each other. In that heady moment, art would be remade by subverting form and material, structure and discipline; feeling was quaint and outdated.

Ugo Mulas's "Jasper Johns" from 1964.
Ugo Mulas's "Jasper Johns" from 1964.© Ugo Mulas Heirs

And yet, there are cracks in the armor, and “Mind/Mirror” explores them deeply. Right after all those flags and maps, an entire gallery is devoted to Johns’s retreat to South Carolina in 1961, where he bought a home and settled in to work through his broken heart. Famous works here show the artist’s formal inventiveness — “Studio,” 1964, the Whitney’s first Johns acquisition, dangles a string of paint cans from a top corner, while a door, askew, breaks the plane of the canvas and anchors it in the real world.

Johns, whether by choice or not, found himself moored in the real world, too. In his self-exile, he made works about the legacy of the Gullah Geechee people, the descendants of African slaves, with rich heritage in the area; as well as pieces that touch on his queer identity and tie to the work of his friend, the poet Frank O’Hara. One such piece, “In Memory of My Feelings: Frank O’Hara,” 1961, is alive with ache — a spectral flag in ashen gray roughed up with scrabbles of paint, a fork and spoon hanging on a string.

You’ll wrap around, finally, to the other end of that opening display, where more recent works that meditate on mortality, connection, even the cosmic can be found (the final section, “Dreams,” is often downright touching, the artist grappling with dark visions). There is, quite clearly, so much more. But “Mind/Mirror” aims for balance: between the inscrutable and the ineffable, between thought and feeling. For a very long time, the art world orthodoxy split into either/or. “Mind/Mirror” lurches between the two, but don’t we all? Both structured and messy, it feels whole.

JASPER JOHNS: MIND/MIRROR Through Feb. 13 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort St., New York, N.Y. 212-570-3600, www.whitney.org; and through Feb. 13 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. 215-763-8100, www.philamuseum.org

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.