Beauty and the Gray


For most people conceptual or “modern” art is either hit or miss. Some find the subtleties and minimalism of this style to be fascinating; others see it as simply uninspired or lacking true art aesthetics. Whatever your feelings may be there are certain figures in the contemporary art arena whose work and unique style and technique stands strong with the best. 

The Art Institute of Chicago, in collaboration with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of art, is currently hostingGray, a major exhibition chronicling the work of American multi-faceted artist, Jasper Johns from some of his selected periods. Focusing solely on the artist’s work with gray tones, the exposition is an extremely comprehensive overview of John’s fascination with the simplicities of the neutral color over five decades of his career.

Johns has been labeled many things–abstract expressionist, pop artist, and neo-Dadaist–none of which truly define his work. His fascination with the range and tonality of color (and with his gray work, the definition and neutrality of color) has always been present. Similar to pop artists of past and present, Johns has always utilized familiar images and themes (his two most famous pieces, Map and Flag, both focus on visual everyday emblems that we are familiar with thus forcing the viewer to look past the subject). Finally he sees his canvases and works as objects, often utilizing sensations such as texture as well as three-dimensional found objects (usually everyday items such as balls or clothes hangers). 

This exhibit is divided into the different themes and epochs of his gray pieces, beginning with early abstract oil paintings circa the 1950s, which focus on the shades between the monochromatic polars, black and white. The final room is devoted to Johns’ most recent pieces, theCatenary series (1997-2003), which marked a return to his gray form and focused on line and plane utilizing string and other fully dimensional objects that jump off the canvases. While these early and coda works are important to the exhibit’s overall theme and evolution, the work during the middle years, particularly his gray drafts and re-workings of some of his most famous pieces, truly make the strongest lasting impression. 

In the same vein as Map and Flag, both of which have whole series and studies devoted to gray, Johns fascination with numbers and letters are some of the exhibits finest specimens.  Focusing again on everyday iconography (the letters A-Z; numbers 0-9), Johns takes something the eye is familiar with and strips it down to a raw form. 

The bulk middle years, including the MapFlagLettersNumbers and Target series, also illustrate Johns fascination with multiple mediums for the canvas, everything from drawings and sketches, oil paintings, printmaking and stenciling, to the most fascinating; the encaustic paintings and collages. The encaustic technique, which Johns used throughout his career and brought to the forefront of modern art, involves the blending of color pigments with hot wax, which, when layered, creates a one of the kind texture to the canvases. In regards to his use of the canvas as an object and entity of the work Johns has said, “The canvas is object, the paint is object, and object is object. Once the canvas can be taken to have any kind of spatial meaning, then the object can be taken to have that meaning within the canvas.” 

Also featured heavily throughout the exhibit are Johns ink on plastic works, which pair up perfectly with his gray themes and create a one of a kind effect, particularly his re-workings of his Target series (large scale bulls-eye forms) in this unique medium. Similar to the encaustic technique, the ink on plastic pieces create a finish and an allusion to texture that jumps off the white walls, which they are hung. 

The most curious and bizarre part of the exhibit (also the easiest to miss) is the tucked away room containing some of John’s early ventures into sculpture. The handful of gray painted bronze busts also focus on common icons such as household objects like light bulbs, which, despite their minimalism, are fascinating illustrations of his talents outside the canvas. His bronze sculpture, The Critic Sees, a scathing critique of scathing art critics (Johns had his share of negative reviews) is one of the more underappreciated highlights of the exhibition that should not be missed. 

Featuring roughly 130 different works covering a range of different mediums Gray may seem a bit daunting at first but as you flow through the various rooms and watch the evolution of the artist’s work unfold, it’s difficult not to find a certain level of beauty beneath such a stale, achromatic color. For spectators not familiar with the work of Jasper Johns, Gray may appear as a bit of a specific introduction since much of his work is vibrant with color. That said, Gray encompasses themes of Johns work that he has explored all throughout his career and since the exhibit spans five different decades it’s a perfect way to witness an artist’s transformation and maturation. 

Jasper Johns: Gray will be at The Art Institute of Chicago’s Regenstein Hall until January 6, 2008 and will run at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art from February 5 to May 4, 2008. For more information visit www.artic.edu.

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