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From the Beginning

The Menil offers a clue to unlocking the mystery of Jasper Johns

The original Painted Bronze is the centerpiece of "Jasper Johns: The Sculptures." The Savarin can, devoid of its larger-than-life two-dimensional permutations, seems perversely small and simple. Here, Johns carried out his well-known dictum, "Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it." With incredible acumen, he painted the freestanding bronze to look almost exactly like an actual Savarin can full of used brushes. The piece, which as its title notes is both painting and sculpture, sums up many of the tensions at work in the Menil exhibit. Like all of Johns' art, it demands close viewing -- from a distance, it could be mistaken for the real thing, but on examination, the fingerprint of its creator is literally present. It is an assemblage of ordinary objects, one that Johns saw in his studio every day until suddenly, he saw. It makes obvious reference to the dynamic act of creating art, yet it's completely immobilized, a bit forlorn.

As soon as Johns does one thing, some critics have said, he attempts the opposite. It was quite characteristic of the painter, then, to pronounce in a 1973 interview, "It seems to me that old art offers just as good a criticism of new art as new art offers of old." Certainly the painter didn't mean to exclude his own oeuvre. So Painted Bronze -- quotidian rather than heroic, tactile rather than narrative, original rather than recycled -- can stand in critical opposition to Johns' more recent work, which has moved on to Fellini-esque preoccupations with biography and memory.

Oppositions play a major role not just in Johns' individual pieces, but in his career. And just as he revisits his flags and cans again and again, so also can the viewer -- with the caveat that Johns is already a master at this game. It is, after all, his own. So look again -- Painted Bronze is itself somewhat a copy, somewhat telling and even, when seen as being the artist himself, somewhat of a hero.

"Jasper Johns: The Sculptures" will show through March 31 at the Menil Collection, 1515 Sul Ross, 525-9400.

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