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Jasper Johns exhibit about images, not irony, at Arts Center in St. Petersburg


Jasper Johns (1930- ) is one of the great artists of the 20th century. You may know little or nothing about him or his work. But you will recognize his influence when you see a collection of his prints at the Arts Center.

He represents a large fault line that divides mid 20th century American art. On one side is angst-laden abstract expressionism, which many observers think had run its course by the late 1950s. On the other is the movement that came to be called pop art.

Maybe the shift was as much about a collective mood, a desire to leave the sadness of the earlier decades and its art behind. Johns came along with art straightforwardly about an object painted on a canvas, not a subject of deep soul-searching.

Johns is not a pop artist, even though he was among the first to deploy familiar images such as flags, targets and coffee cans and incorporate stenciled letters and numbers into his work, an idea inspired by his idol, dadaist Marcel Duchamp. Like the abstract expressionists, he has always valued the individual skills an artist brought to art's creation. So the most obvious difference between him and pop artists is seen on the surfaces of his paintings, which are rich with textures compared to the slickness of Roy Lichtenstein's, for example.

Since this is a show of his prints, not paintings, you won't see that. But you will see another, thematic difference. Johns' treatment of these everyday, often banal things is neutral, devoid of pop irony that later artists infused into them.

Johns' love of printmaking, a collaborative process, may seem at odds with his love of a painting's one-of-a-kind personality. The mechanics of painting were important to Johns and importantly stressed in his art, so printmaking was a natural medium for him to try. He has contributed almost as much to it as to painting.

He pushes hard, sometimes making any of the processes he chooses as complicated as they can be to create tonal layers. In many cases, you'll think you're looking at a painting.

The Arts Center has devoted all its galleries to the exhibition, with 68 prints arranged mostly thematically to give you a good sense of his preoccupations and his evolution. They range from his first, a target from 1960, to a few from the late 1990s with autobiographical references, so it's a broad survey.

From the beginning, Johns has borrowed from the paintings in composing the prints. That early Target in black and white is covered with marks, a kind of visual texture that compensates for the print's lack of a tactile one. He revisits the same things repeatedly. We see several versions of the Savarin coffee can that holds brushes in his studio, the alphabet, the sequence of numbers and, of course, flags and targets. But one gets the sense that the repetition is for purposes of technical experimentation rather than an exploration of the image itself. He deflects interpretations of their meaning. He says, for example, he dreamed of a flag and then painted one, choosing other things such as stencils because they were at hand and were "things the mind already knows," a quote from which the exhibition title is taken.

And how richly he mines them all here. As with the paintings, Johns' prints become more personal over time. His shadow appears in The Seasons, a lovely group of four prints about the passage of time. His handprint is altered to resemble a paintbrush. An old family photograph is faithfully reproduced in one print and then gradually faded to near extinction in another.

Some later prints seem downright obscure, a complete reversal of his original transparency and definitely not of things we already know. Several from the Green Angel series are included, part of a group of 40 or so paintings, drawings and prints made throughout the 1990s. If not for the cryptic name (supposedly inspired by a 16th century German altarpiece), Green Angel could be viewed as an exuberant foray into form, color and excessively complicated printmaking (such as using six different copper plates to build up all that form and color). But a lot of people, me included, scratch their chins, perplexed by what it means. I'm thinking maybe it means nothing. Since Johns seems fine with that, I am, too.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.

Jasper Johns Prints: Things the Mind Already Knows

The exhibition is at the Arts Center, 719 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, through May 30. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. (727) 822-7872 or

Jasper Johns exhibit about images, not irony, at Arts Center in St. Petersburg 02/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 7, 2009 3:30am]
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