Jasper Johns declared himself an artist more than six decades ago when he began exploring the human condition through drawing. Over time, his works have been associated with abstract expressionism and pop art. This month, a compilation of his drawings spanning from 1954 to 2016 will be the inaugural exhibit at the new Menil Drawing Institute.
The Condition of Being Here: Drawings by Jasper Johns takes viewers on a journey of what it means to be human—both physically and emotionally.
“We tend to think about drawings as pencil or pen on paper,” said Kelly Montana, assistant curator at the Menil Drawing Institute. “These drawings are also oil on canvas, ink on plastic. … You can see that the ink kind of does what it wants. … It stops of its own volition.”
Johns’ half-century fascination with the human body and curiosity about the human mind are evident in his sketches, which are reminiscent of figure studies by Leonardo da Vinci and the abstract works of Pablo Picasso.
“For Johns, skin was a container, it was a material, … a way to think about the body,” Montana said. “The skin holds everything in and is part of this world.”
In the studio of his Connecticut home, Johns covered portions of his body in oil to create Study for Skin I. Once the oil was applied, he rubbed his body onto a sheet of drafting paper and went back over the oil with charcoal to find impressions of his body to visualize the three-dimensionality of the human form on a flat surface.
“This concept of transferring the world into a flat surface is an idea that has longevity in art. Think of the Renaissance,” Montana said. “How do we make the world seem like the way we see it on paper? It requires an understanding of vision, but also a complete reorientation of depth.”
In Green Angel and an untitled drawing from 1973, Johns rearranges the human body. For the untitled piece, human body parts were cast and traced onto canvas with oil paint and graphite pencil. In an interesting twist, Johns did not place the tracings to recreate the human form, but jumbled them on the page.
“A subtle disorientation of the viewer is behind each of these works,” Montana said. “He has taken the elements of the lips, moved the lips and he’s moved them into this square configuration.”
Johns also explores the emotional toll of life in his drawings. From his depiction of an anguished soldier returning home from the Vietnam War to more domestic drawings made from the vantage point of his bathtub, Johns conveys the subtleties of mood and circumstance.
“The way his life transpired in the mind’s eye concerned him, so he went to see a psychologist,” Montana said of the artist, now 88, a Georgia native who was raised in South Carolina. “The psychologist called this ‘racing thoughts’ and said that they are very normal. There are lots of different things in [this drawing]—it’s the bathtub, it’s a weird sign in German—things that are major moments in your life mixed with private moments and these moments that stand out to you for some reason.”
Ultimately, Johns’ work is suggestive, even subjective, which gives viewers a chance to pull from their own experiences and draw their own conclusions.
“I think [humanity] fascinated him,” Montana said. “I think that if Johns wasn’t such a masterful draftsman, I think in a lot of ways he would have been a philosopher.”
@virjiniablog Looking good. Good luck!
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@sfaiz212 Thanks for sharing the info.
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Today’s #VeteranOfTheDay is Army Veteran Bernard Horowitz. Bernard served during World War II from 1943 to 1945.Bernard Horowitz was drafted into the Army in 1943. He had wanted to enlist earlier, but since his other brother was already serving his mom did not want him to serve as well so she would not give him permission. He went to Camp Grant in Illinois where he first did some clerical training. Bernard was then trained to be a medic and learned how to bandage people and care for them on the battlefield. He was then assigned to the battalion headquarters as a battalion clerk. It was his job to be in charge of the rations for all four companies at Camp Grant. Bernard made sure they got all the necessary food and that at the end of training there would be enough food to throw a party for the soldiers. Next, Bernard was transferred to a base in Wisconsin where he was responsible for discharging soldiers. While he was there, he fired a gun for the first time with no training and ended up with a swollen lip from the kick of the gun.Bernard was later assigned to the 553rd Military Police Escort Guard and sent over to Europe. He stopped in England then landed in France a few days after D-Day. One of his jobs was to guard prisoners and take them to bury dead cattle. Bernard also did traffic control when the Allies cut off the Cherbourg Peninsula. At one point, Bernard was on his way to Versailles to watch over prisoners there when he passed by a howitzer company and saw one of his cousins. During his free time, Bernard liked to listen to the radio that his whole squad had chipped in and bought to share. After the war was over, he went to Frankfurt, Germany for occupation duty and was discharged on December 7, 1945, exactly 4 years after the United States had entered the war. When Bernard got home, he attended design school and joined an organization for Jewish Veterans.Thank you for your service, Bernard!