The Dutch Wives, by Jasper Johns (on view at Harvard’s Sackler Museum)

Sebastian Smee. How did Boston get so lucky? Having him at the Globe has made all the difference for me. No wonder my friends down under are still bemoaning his loss (Smee wrote for The Australian in Sydney before relocating here.)

His recent review of the small show at Harvard on Jasper Johns has a few passages that capture the quixotic nature of Johns’ work with an insightful ring of truth that I had to share them here. I have had a long and complicated relationship with Johns’s work, but Smee artfully circles up those diverse feelings into a view that feels balanced and accurate. He hits it directly, even in his intro paragraph:

Jasper Johns is an artist one finds difficult to love, and then, on reflection — and often against a backdrop of crisis or doubt — comes to love wholeheartedly, soberly, sincerely. He is an artist for grown-ups. He might seem reticent, puzzling, at times willfully tangled up in himself. But if you are struggling to make sense of art, life, or any conceivable combination thereof, he is not the bafflingly forked path he can seem, but rather a guide, one who won’t take your hand but will instead send you back out on your own, your sense of the mystery renewed and expanded.

And it just keeps coming. Referring to Johns’s work as “difficult to write about—so tender to the touch,” this passage is also memorable:

One of the reasons Johns’s work is so difficult to write about — so tender to the touch — is that it is stuffed with allusions and clues that amount to a kind of secret order or logic, and thence to what might be thought of as “meaning.” And yet, frustratingly, it goes out of its way to obscure meaning.

That’s because Johns is not interested in clear meanings. Clear meanings are for children and lawyers. He is interested instead in life, and is rightly contemptuous of critics and academics who try to act as village explainers of his work.

When, in a 1965 interview, the critic David Sylvester followed up on an answer to an earlier question by asking, “Do you know why?” Johns said, “No, but I can make up a reason.” It was not a cantankerous joke, I think, but an honest answer, full of gentle forbearance.

Smee goes on to quote Johns from the same David Sylvester interview: “The final suggestion, the final gesture, the final statement [in a work of art] has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement.” Johns is just as interested, Smee points out, in the “inevitable collapse of meaning, and what is left in its wake — the “helpless statement.” This is a graceful way to engage with those hard won concepts like humility, vulnerability, and getting to the essence that does stand up, all the way through to the end.

Advertisements