American idol

At the twilight of his career, Jasper Johns can still challenge our perceptions.

Jenny Phan

The United States prides itself on its simplicities. It has a simple political culture, one of the shortest national histories in the developed world and a simple sense of morality. To reproduce this simplicity, the nation depends heavily on visuals.

Many things in the United States are taken at face value. We rarely see beyond the glossy photos and bubbly letters printed on the cover.

Jasper Johns, renowned for his flag paintings from the early 1950s, has been a famous name in American art and is still amazing Americans today with new renditions of his work.

His work has transformed over the years, said Joan Rothfuss, curator of “Past Things and Present Jasper Johns Since 1983” exhibition at the Walker Art Center.

Though it is obvious that everyone changes with time, it is incredible to see an artist’s work change throughout his or her career. The artworks displayed at the Walker will focus on Johns’ work since the 1980s because, Rothfuss said, the most interesting changes took place during this period in his life.

The earliest part of this retrospective highlights the artist’s printmaking. That period is characterized by Johns’ use of the catenary, a curve formed from a flexible line suspended from its endpoints. Johns’ uses this line over and over again to question the idea of reality. The “Catenary (Jacobs Ladder)” was created in 1999. It is a piece of string attached to two pieces of wood at different points in order to create a curve that overlays a gray background with multicolored speckling. The string creates a shadow of itself on the background. Johns creates the illusion of another shadow by drawing another thin line that mirrors the shadow. The juxtaposition of the two “shadows” calls reality into question.

The catenary is the base of the next iteration of Johns’ work. Johns has always used real life things to build and create new ways of looking at various objects. With the influence of Grunewald and Picasso, Johns has intertwined the idea of time and the vitality of images.

It is a style that has become more prevalent in his more recent works, where flat paintings are drawn with a frame and perfect shadow depth to make the frame look palpable. To create illusion in his works, Johns emulates Picasso’s “Women with Straw Hat,” where facial features are thrown about the face in weird angles or on edges of the background to produce a surrounded-walking-living piece of art. Johns uses the combination of dimensions to manipulate viewers into questioning how we see things.

It is through the soft and slow warping of his work that we see what sort of artist he has become and how through a combination of all his works and the building of images on top of images is the essence of his life.

He has created a mirror of his life and an example for Americans that shows an image cannot be seen only at face value. There is life in images and it walks and talks and carries a personality like that man with the brown hair, dark eyes and low commanding voice. Johns’ art is a person, and that person is himself.