Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror

Yesterday, we saw Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror at the Philadelphia Art Museum. I was excited to see this exhibit because I frankly do not love his work. I’ve never quite got it, but if I was going to appreciate it, I thought this would be the place to develop that muscle.

Whether or not I like Jasper Johns is irrelevant. He may be the most famous American artist of the 20th century, and some amateur art appreciator’s opinions are helpful to no one. Today the New York Times has a great multimedia piece called How a Gray Painting Can Break Your Heart by Jason Farago that genuinely demonstrated how powerful this work can be for the right audience.

I am not the right audience.

I just don’t care for Johns’ work, mostly because I do not quite get it. The quintessential early Johns is the piece called Flag, and I don’t care about it. Listen, I know it implicitly poses the question of “Is this a flag or a painting of a flag?” which is supposed to set off a debate within me about the lines between art and reality, but it doesn’t. When I see it, I see a flag and those are everywhere.

​​Flag, 1954–55, by Jasper Johns

I want to appreciate Jasper Johns. Not out of patriotism, but every intelligent art lover seems to appreciate him. My lack of care for him is a critique of my own eye and understanding. I know I have a preference for the masters. I elevate precision and demonstration of skill over art challenging art’s own status quo, so the movement in the 20th century to reject ‘what is’ and turn art on its heads does very little for me. It always feels like it could be a smokescreen for some charlatan to earn the title of artist. It’s the same reason I don’t care for Pollock and struggle with Rothko. Maybe that is more of a reflection of my relationship to my sterility in art creation.

One gallery, Trial and Working Proofs, was my favorite space in the exhibit. There are 8 large pieces of printmaking that I thought was quite interesting. Their size and complexity gave me something to explore and compare to one another.

Did I like the exhibit? Not really, but that should not stop you from going to check it out. Seeing art in the real world is great, and you should do it. You may not love what you see, but hopefully, you’ll be near someone who does. There is nothing better than watching art reach out and touch someone.

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