In early 2020, Dr Geller received another letter from Johns, which made him jump. “He told me he was thinking of making a painting, and since he was old, he wasn’t sure if he would finish it. And if he finished it, I would be partly responsible for this painting.
He was always inspired by pre-existing images. You can start with his early “Flag” paintings and his debt to seamstress Betsy Ross. Its use of mundane subjects, as art history textbooks point out, spawned the Pop Art movement of the 1960s. But unlike pop artists, with their Campbell’s soup cans and comic book women crying on the phone with their boyfriends, Johns is not interested in satirizing consumer culture. He is a more interior and poetic artist who shows how objects can be entrusted to express feelings and ideas, to evoke presences and absences.
“Slice,” ultimately, borrows from Dr. Geller’s card, as viewers can see when the painting debuts in the Whitney half of “Mind / Mirror”. There he is: this funny stickman suspended in the sky, his body rendered in red, blue and green dots edged with white pigment.
Other elements are no less important. The paint draws much of its power from its tarry, visceral surface. On the left side, the black pigment thins and sinks, exposing spots of bare canvas as well as a linear pattern (which happens to be based on Leonardo’s knot designs). The light is fading. Something is disappearing.
The right side, on the other hand, is dominated by a hand-drawn illustration of a knee. It’s secured in place with four small pieces of duct tape that look so real you might be tempted to peel them off the canvas, but these are just a trompe l’oeil illusion. Johns found the original knee drawing, made by a Cameroonian high school student named Jean Marc Togodgue, in the office of an orthopedist the artist sees for his long-standing knee problems.
Overall, “Slice” captures the chance of life, with its mix of the painfully personal (a throbbing knee) and the coldly impersonal (the endless expanse of space) and no clear connection between them. The artist seems to say that even his paintings are mere objects, as separate and eternally silent as the maps and the illustrations and other quirks they represent.