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New Jasper Johns monograph offers a full overview of his 60-year career

The book's author, Roberta Bernstein, says there is a clear consistency to his practice

by Pac Pobric  |  24 August 2017
New Jasper Johns monograph offers a full overview of his 60-year career
Jasper Johns, Three Flags (1958). (© Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photo by Jamie Stukenberg © Wildenstein Plattner Institute, New York)
For frugal fans of Jasper Johns unwilling to put down $1,500 for the newly released catalogue rasionné of his paintings and sculptures, there is good news: the first volume of the catalogue has just been published as an affordable standalone volume, priced at $60.

The book, titled Redo An Eye, by the scholar Roberta Bernstein is a richly illustrated, comprehensive overview of his more than 60-year career and is the first monograph to take into account the full scope of his achievements. It is published by the Wildenstein Plattner Institute (which supported Bernstein's catalogue raisonné project) and the Yale University Press.

The projects are the result of years of study and dialogue. Bernstein first met Johns at the Castelli gallery in 1967, after which he hired her to organise his print collection. "I spent some time doing that and it gave me the occasion to get to know him and watch him work and hear his comments about art and life," says Bernstein, a professor emeritus of art history the State University of New York at Albany.

Those discussions served as a guide for her doctoral dissertation on Johns at Columbia University, which she completed in 1975 under the Cézanne scholar Theodore Reff. Her work was later published under the title Jasper Johns's Paintings and Sculptures, 1954-1974: The Changing Focus of the Eye.

  • Jasper Johns, Bread (2012).  (© Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photo by Jamie Stukenberg © Wildenstein Plattner Institute, New York)
  • Jasper Johns, Memory Piece (Frank O’Hara) (1961–70). (© Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photo by Jamie Stukenberg © Wildenstein Plattner Institute, New York)

Since then, Johns's art has developed and changed but Bernstein says there is a clear consistency. "He's always reminding you that the thing you're looking at is an object," she says. "Even with the later work, with tromp l'oeil details, you're always aware there is a falseness, that the painting is an object. That runs through everything." It also speaks to his conceptual concerns, she notes, pointing out that above all, Johns is interested in how meaning is created.

In the introduction to Redo an Eye, Bernstein writes that, although many critics and scholars have argued that Johns's work is inscrutable, she has always found a clear and simple way in by simply looking closely.

"I never felt his work was impenetrable or that he somehow sets up barriers," she says. "Johns is a very complex man and he doesn't reveal himself in depth right away, if ever. But I think the work is purposefully done so that it is accessible in very simple ways. I quoted him saying that 'the viewer gets everything I get.' And he really believes that one person's interpretation is as good as another's."

Bernstein is especially pleased that the first page of each section has an image from one of Johns's unpublished sketchbooks. "I was able to find pages I thought were related to each chapter and it's a nice addition," she says. "It gives people a feel for his sketchbooks, which are so important for the way he recorded his thoughts and developed his ideas."

Bernstein is now co-organising a Johns retrospective with the curator Edith Devaney due to open at the Royal Academy in London in September. The exhibition, titled Something Resembling Truth (23 September-10 December), includes more than 150 works. It travels to the Broad Art Museum in Los Angeles in February 2018.

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