One never knows when you’ll learn something new. This weekend I was held in great expectation as I anticipated the Jasper Johns retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
I recall his last major retrospective in Manhattan in 1977, seeing all those target paintings, the flags, the numbers, all those luscious cross-hatched canvases lovingly done with encaustic paint. I recall the bronze sculptures of the flashlight, the Ballantine beer cans and the Savarin coffee can with the paint brushes sticking out.
The best was “Painting with two balls,” which prompted a confused and angry response from a museum visitor: “You call this art?” It was one of those astounding landmark retrospectives, comparable to the Jeff Koons or the Warhol retrospective at the same museum.
But oddly, this show, entitled “Mind/Mirror,” left me cold and disappointed. Perhaps it was because they split the show in two, with half of his pieces being on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and half at the Whitney.
The show was advertised as “a blockbuster,” “momentous,” “unprecedented” and “comprehensive.” Maybe the fact that some of his major works like “Watchman,” “Painting with two balls,” “Tango,” or “False Start” were not on display in New York produced this letdown.
But as I browsed through the catalog the real reason for the disappointment was revealed. I could see by looking at the dates of each piece that the majority of his greatest works were done over the first 10 years of his career.
From 1954 to 1964 he produced his revolutionary and art shifting canvases including “Target with Four Faces,” “Flag,” “White Flag,” “Fools’ House,” “Watchman,” “Field Painting,” and “Studio.” And when you looked at the dates of his work thereafter, like “Racing Thoughts” from 1984 or “Four Seasons” from 1989 there is a quality of treading water or simply retrieving things he had already done as if he was paying homage to his former lost self.
His Catenary series have interest as does the “Regrets” series done when he was in his 80s, but one could see that his power and his genius clearly burned its brightest for a mere 10 years and was flickering by the time he reached midlife at 35.
As an example, his canvas “Racing Thoughts,” done when he was 53, is a rendition of his bathroom wall, including the faucets and his pants hanging from a hook.
His downward arc and the racing pain it must have produced in him reminded me of the line spoken by Dr. Eldon Tyrell in the sci-fi classic “Blade Runner” as he addressed the furious replicant Roy Batty, who was indignant that he was designed with a lifespan of only four years. Just prior to Batty killing him, Dr. Tyrell explained: “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. And you have burned so very, very brightly.” And with that, the replicant crushed the skull of Dr. Tyrell, his maker. This slow fading of the light is everyone’s fate, including geniuses. Especially geniuses.
Think of Bob Dylan, one of the world’s greatest songwriters. For five years he created some of the most memorable songs of the popular era. Albums like “Bringing It All Back Home” in 1965, “Highway 61 Revisited” in 1965, “Blonde on Blonde” in 1966 and “John Wesley Harding” in 1967. But then came the breakdown and the motorcycle accident and the magic seemed to fade away. By 1967, with just five years on the international stage, he became a born-again Christian and produced little of note since then.
Or take the Beatles, the band that from 1960 to 1970 rocked the entire world and then suddenly dismantled themselves and said good-bye, good-bye. John Lennon was dead by the age of 40.
How about the luminescent Marilyn Monroe, who was an international star from her very first film in 1950 but was dead 12 years later at the age of 36. Tiger Woods turned pro by the age of 20, and over the next decade won 13 majors, occupied the top spot in world ranking for a total of 545 weeks, earned over $1 billion in that time and won nearly 33 percent of the tournaments he played in. And by the ripe old age of 34 he was so mired in pain, multiple surgeries, drug use and scandals, that it’s a small miracle that he’s still alive.
The moral of this talent is as follows. Our heroes, be they artists, actresses, singers, or athletes, do not live forever and they certainly do not produce their groundbreaking work for very long. Genuine genius seems to last for about five to 10 years. As Dr. Tyrell said, the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.
That seems to be the case with Jasper Johns as well. Since about age 70, his most important canvases include Catenary (1998) and “Regrets” (2013), which are darkly serious meditations on death, dying and disappointment. His last 20 years of work reminds me of the black-and-white masterpiece “Roma” by Mexican Director Alphonso Cuaron. This film is an homage to his loving nanny, Cleo, his steadfast maid who remained cheerful despite enduring one disappointment after another, including giving birth to a stillborn child.
Maybe the best conclusion to make is that the real geniuses are the ones who manage to endure aging and all of life’s pain and setbacks with a glimmer of a smile and some hope in your heart. And if you look carefully at “Catenary” by Johns you can see on the far-right side of the canvas a checkered harlequin pattern. And weren’t harlequins those zany, nimble comic characters who could look death in the eye and laugh at it?