Over the past 60 years, Jasper Johns has developed a body of work whose images of flags, maps and targets are instantly recognizable to any seasoned viewer of modern art. Impersonal in subject yet tenderly executed in encaustic paint or lithographic tusche, in pencil, ink or lead relief, these symbols simultaneously entice and resist the viewer. The Johnsian tease of both letting and not letting the viewer in permeates two recent exhibitions. The 58 prints on view in “Jasper Johns and John Lund: Masters in the Print Studio” at the Katonah Museum of Art reveal the experimentation and innovation that have arisen from the longstanding working relationship between the artist and his master printer. At MoMA, “Jasper Johns: Regrets” features two prints, in conjunction with two paintings and ten drawings, all created in the 18 months prior to the exhibition’s March opening and all derived from a battered photograph of the British painter Lucian Freud.
Johns came upon the photograph of Freud in an auction catalogue. Taken around 1964, it had been commissioned by Francis Bacon, who preferred to paint from photographs rather than live models. Freud sits on a bed with one leg folded under the other, his hand in his hair and his face turned away. Johns incorporated into his work the forms of Freud’s contorted body as well as those of the large tear and creases in the worn photograph. The opening drawing is a pencil sketch of the photograph, below which Johns has inscribed, “Goya? Dreams? Bats?” The allusion to Goya’s famous etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1799), which shows an artist similarly burying his head in his arms, draws a line between Bacon’s and Goya’s tortured subjects and sets the somber tone of the exhibition.