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From the Beginning

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

For half a century now, Jasper Johns has kept his public guessing. Each time he exhibits new work, be it abstract, figurative or something in between, the critics are dispatched en masse to decode it like so many Sherlock Holmeses. Over the years, the cryptic artist, himself a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, has reused his trademark symbols and images, gradually adding new ones to build up a lexicon of literary, biographical and art historical clues. His work, while maintaining an appreciable rigor, has become increasingly self-referential and convoluted, a Where's Waldo? game for art history graduate students.

That's one reason why "Jasper Johns: The Sculptures," currently on view at the Menil Collection, is of such interest. It gives us a chance to revisit the beginning of the artist's career and see him at a time when his work, if not exactly easier, was at least far simpler. The majority of the works here were made in the three years following Johns' first one-man show in 1958. To someone accustomed to the vivid palette of Johns' epic scale paintings, the sculptures in the show -- small objects fashioned in plaster, metal or sculpmetal -- seem strangely subdued. Many of them are life-sized renderings of light bulbs and flashlights. The show also includes several wall reliefs: cast and additive versions of Johns' Flag, and number and letter works such as 0 through 9 in various materials. Organized by the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, England, the exhibit will not be seen anywhere else in the United States.

Johns' 1958 show made him an overnight success. In an unprecedented gesture, New York's Museum of Modern Art snapped up two paintings, though they passed on the now famous Flag, afraid it would be seen as unpatriotic. A richly textured collage and wax painting of the Stars and Stripes, the work made a national symbol into an object that could be enjoyed on purely aesthetic terms -- a subversive move both artistically and politically. The works Johns exhibited at his breakthrough show seemed to oscillate between subject and object: a painting of a flag is a flag; a painting of a number, letter or target is a number, letter or target. By selecting subjects that, as he put it, "the mind already knows," Johns avoided making decisions about design and form, and so narrowly specified the ways in which he could contribute to the work.

In his sculptures, where Johns uses actual objects rather than symbols, this method functions differently. A sculpture of a flashlight is not a flashlight E is it? Maybe it is, as in Flashlight I, where he coated an actual flashlight in sculpmetal, and maybe it isn't. With the light bulbs and flashlights, the work's form is largely determined by the subject, leaving Johns to play with texture and material. Of the eight light bulbs in the Menil show, three are bronze -- a highbrow material -- and three are sculpmetal -- a hobbyist's clay that hardens to an aluminum-like finish. In their ordinariness, the sculptures share something with Duchamp's Ready-mades, yet here the touch of the artist is flagrant. These works are clearly not replicas but modulated representations, as voluptuous on their pedestals as still lifes of fruit. Whereas in Johns' paintings the emphasis is on the flux of meaning, in these sculptures the emphasis is on the flux of seeing. Johns teaches us to look again at everyday objects (objects that, not coincidentally, enable us to see), and furthermore to look at how we look.

While today the light bulb variations seem academic, the show's later works are more playful. The Critic Smiles, a sculpmetal of a toothbrush in which the bristles are replaced by teeth, and The Critic Sees, a sculpmetal brick with a pair of spectacles protruding from one side, both function on many levels: as visual humor, astute commentary and inversions of ordinary relationships. If one peers through the lenses of The Critic Sees, one discovers mouths instead of eyes. In his paintings John often presents near-symmetry: images that are fraternal twins. In The Critic Sees he does the same: one mouth is open as if to talk (the critic speaks instead of seeing?), the other is gritting its teeth (early on, Johns was often impatient with reviewers).

One lyrical, elegant work in the current show is evidence not only of Johns' fondness for literary reference, but of his early tendency to express emotion only on behalf of others. Memory Piece (Frank O'Hara) is a small chest of three shallow drawers filled with sand. The lid of the chest is hinged and fitted with a brass cast of the sole of O'Hara's foot; when lowered, the cast imprints the sand. O'Hara, who wrote the acclaimed poem "In Memory of My Feelings," was a curator and a close friend of Johns, but the sand in the drawers is from South Carolina, where Johns grew up. So to whose memory does the title refer?

When Johns designed the poster and catalog cover for a 1977 retrospective of his work at the Whitney Museum, he featured a reproduction of a Savarin brand coffee can filled with paintbrushes, a reference to an early sculpture titled Painted Bronze. In the same year, Newsweek featured Johns on its cover with the tag line "Jasper Johns: Super Artist"; a can of brushes was placed conspicuously in the foreground of the cover photo. Though he made only one cast of the Savarin can with brushes, Johns has recycled the image time and again in lithographs, etchings, paintings and at least four catalog and monograph covers. Many observers, recognizing the artist's penchant for allegory, have come to read the highly recognizable can as a stand-in for the artist himself.

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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