A dominant figure in 20th-century American art, Johns has always been a low-key artist, hesitant to talk about his work and rarely offering an explanation of what he has done regularly for seven decades. The work itself is supposed to be self-sufficient. So it doesn’t seem unusual that the first thing visitors encounter at the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of his work is someone else’s voice.
Mind / Mirror, which runs from September 29 to February 13, features around 500 works spread across both the PMA and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, with each exhibition mirroring the other. The co-curators say the structure of the collaborative exhibit mimics Jasper’s lifelong work.
“The exhibition is vast and you could focus on the complexity it took to put it together, but the basic idea is very simple,” said Carlos Basualdo, curator of PMA. “Can we make a show that by its very structure tells you something about the way Jasper Johns thinks about his work?”
The complexities are significant. Each exhibition in the two museums has been conceived as a unique curatorial vision, while being intentionally reflected. The PMA show is organized into a series of 10 rooms, each depicting an aspect of John’s work. The Whitney also has 10 guest rooms, each corresponding to themes in Philadelphia Rooms.
So a PMA gallery full of paintings of Johns numbers, a motif he has worked on several times over the decades, mirrors a room by The Whitney filled with works featuring other motifs that Johns has worked on over and over again: maps and targets.
A Philadelphia room on John’s fascination and his collaborations in Japan is thematically linked to a New York room on John’s relationship with South Carolina, where he grew up. The “Nightmares” room in Philadelphia filled with dark paintings associated with anxious emotions – some likely made in response to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s – matches a brighter “Dreams” room at the Whitney.
The mirror concept of both exhibitions evokes the work of Johns. He regularly used doubles and variations in his work, across multiple canvases.
“There are a whole variety of ways Jasper uses mirroring, duplicating, and repeating in work,” Basualdo said. “You see a lot of works that are versions of an earlier work with slight variations and in different mediums. You also see works in which they are very structured, a duplicate of a certain image twice.
“Ale Cans” (1964) at the PMA, for example, is a painted bronze sculpture of two cans of Ballantine beer. They appear to be the same, but on closer inspection one is hollow, having been opened with a beer can punch, the other is solid bronze with an unopened lid. Nearby is John’s painting of two American flags, one stacked on top of the other, together forming a single work.
Johns extended the concept of duality beyond his canvas frames. Basualdo recreated a 1960 exhibition at Leo Castelli’s gallery in Manhattan, the first dealer to offer him a solo exhibition. The original exhibition featured eight canvases of abstract works, all independent works that are also related to each other: only together do they complete Johns’ unified vision.
These paintings do not ultimately live together. They were sold and separated. Basualdo was able to collect six of the eight original canvases for this exhibition, to give an almost complete idea of what the artist wanted.
Likewise, the Whitney recreated a solo exhibition at the Castelli Gallery, starting in 1968.