TAMPA — Turning 91 is something to celebrate but especially for a legendary living artist such as Jasper Johns, whose work is being commemorated with an exhibition at the Tampa Museum of Art.
“An Art of Changes: Jasper Johns Prints, 1960-2018″ is organized by Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, which has the most comprehensive collection of Johns’ prints.
Johns is considered a pioneer in many printmaking techniques. His style can be hard to define. He began working during the post-World War II era of abstract expressionism but was reacting against it. His work focused on everyday objects such as flags, numbers and maps that he would alter slightly, reinterpret and repeat.
He was a painter and sculptor but found printmaking to be an ideal process for exploring that notion of change by repeating motifs. Over the years, he innovated many processes in screen printing, lithography and etching.
In the 1950s, he went to New York, where he met Robert Rauschenberg, who would become his studio mate and romantic partner. He was contemporaries with composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham, with whom he collaborated.
In 1960, Johns made his first lithograph of a target, a motif he repeated throughout his career.
Johns is perhaps most well known for his American flags. One of those works is on display in the Tampa exhibition, in the first of four themed sections, with a series of colorful numbers and targets. Johns famously doesn’t explain the meanings behind his works.
Another section in the exhibition focuses on his studio practice, and we see his vibrant color palette become more muted. He depicts items from his studio, as with Savarin from 1977, featuring a coffee can full of brushes.
Johns was slow to reveal himself fully through his work, but he was interested in body parts, so many pieces include disembodied arms and legs. He never worked with live models; instead he made plaster casts of body parts and worked from those.
From the mid 1970s through the early 1980s, two new motifs dominated Johns’ work: crosshatch patterns and irregularly shaped polygons. Johns has said they were inspired by cars whizzing by and faux flagstone walls in New York.
Johns has collaborated with artists in all disciplines. A book that Johns illustrated for author Samuel Beckett, Foirades/Fizzles, is included in the exhibition.
By the 1980s, Johns was reflecting on personal themes, and a figure began to emerge, as in his series “The Seasons.” In it, many motifs from his early works, such as the American flag, are combined with the crosshatching and disembodied arms, but the outline of a figure is new. It shifts in placement and shadow through the seasons. Some of the imagery is inspired by Pablo Picasso’s works, which are shown on the exhibition label.
Another work, Between the Clock and the Bed, was inspired by Edvard Munch’s Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed. It’s a totally abstract interpretation done with the crosshatching motif, making it a neat comparison with the original, which is pictured on the label. During this period, Johns was exploring themes of life, death, birth and aging.
With around 100 prints, the exhibition is a robust illustration of Johns’ process of layering revised and repeated motifs, and the innovation and experimentation that makes him a unique voice in art history.
If you go
“An Art of Changes: Jasper Johns Prints, 1960–2018″ is on display through Sept. 5. $15; $7.50 seniors, military, Florida educators and professional artists; $5 students K-12; free for children 6 and younger, college students with ID, SNAP EBT participants and members. Pay as you will admission 4-8 p.m. Thursdays. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Wednesday and Friday-Sunday; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday. 120 W Gasparilla Plaza, Tampa. 813-274-8130. tampamuseum.org.