A Master's Cryptic Drawings

Jasper Johns displays a virtuoso's touch in art that alternately reveals and conceals

ONE night in 1954, Jasper Johns dreamed he was painting an American flag. The dream became a reality, and the rest is art history. Inspired by that dream, Johns has since done the 21 paintings and 31 drawings of flags that were the star-spangled cause of his early success.

Johns, who is regarded as one of the most important American painters of the postwar era and whose durable work won him the grand prize in 1988 at the Venice Biennale, has raised some flags that Washington's flag-amendment advocates could take exception to: for example, his black-and-green striped flag painting, with its black stars on an orange background. Beneath it is a muted gray flag; if you stare at the green, black, and orange version above and then glance at the gray one, the after-image takes on the complementary red and blue colors of the real flag.

``Flag, 1957'' - a soft, blurred, almost romantic version of the American flag - is one of the 117 works in ``The Drawings of Jasper Johns,'' a compelling exhibition here at the National Gallery through July 29.

The exhibition, which covers Johns's 35-year career, runs from the tiny (a work five inches across) to the king-sized (seven feet). Many of the works are in color, and they come in more than 10 different media.

``Flag, 1957,'' for instance, a pastel and collage on gesso board, is a layer-cake flag, as the catalog indicates: ``white ground, newsprint and other torn paper, and a layer of pastels in ultramarine, cerulean, and cobalt blues, and yellowish and bluish red. The stars are glued to the support and drawn over with white pastel.'' The effect is reminiscent of the Impressionistic flag paintings of another American, Childe Hassam.

National Gallery director J. Carter Brown says, ``The purpose of art, among other things, is to shake us up a little bit, to challenge our stock assumptions. And I think this show does it in many ways - in the obvious ways of people taking aboard [a Johns] image - like the famous American flag, the map of the United States, or numerals - and starting to see them....''

Another shake-up, says Mr. Brown, has to do with the way Johns treats the relationship between painting and drawing: ``We are all taught to believe that drawings are sort of the cooking pots of art and paintings are the meal - that you aren't supposed to consider drawings more than just preliminary, back-of-the-house, workshop efforts.

``In this case, we see drawings that, in a preponderance of cases, were done after paintings.... And they are works of art in their own right - enormous challenges intellectually. There's a lot of hide-and-seek in there, a lot of fun trying to make out what's going on there. But there is also this sensuous aspect, which is so delicious. I mean, this is virtuosity, and to be in the presence of it is a real turn-on.''

To the casual viewer, some of Johns's drawings are like a code that's difficult to crack. In his earlier work, the numbers, targets, flags, coat hangers, and other subjects are open enough; as he has said, such subjects are ``the things the mind already knows.'' But they don't reveal much about the artist.

In later works such as ``Corpse and Mirror,'' ``Usuyiki, ``Cicada,'' and ``Between the Clock and the Bed,'' the series of parallel lines, which he calls cross-hatching, evidently have deep meaning for him. But they become a sort of cryptology for some viewers.

Even in the works that come closest to self-portraits - the ``Seasons'' series, which includes a silhouette of Johns traced by a friend in bright sunlight - he conceals rather than reveals himself.

Johns himself was on hand at the press briefing just prior to the opening of the National Gallery show. He appears to be a shy man, for, as Carter Brown said, the artist planned to let his drawings speak for him.

But Johns did respond unexpectedly to an artist-critic's question about George Ohr, whose pottery Johns collects. After the briefing, Johns strolled through the exhibition with hooded eyes.

Nan Rosenthal and Ruth Fine, co-curators of the show and co-authors of the catalog, did an illuminating double interview with the artist, published in ``The Drawings of Jaspar Johns.'' In it, the artist, who was born in Augusta, Ga., and raised in South Carolina, tells of wanting to be a painter since early childhood. He attended the University of South Carolina briefly, then went to New York at 19 to study at an art school.

``I left [the school],'' Johns tells his interviewers, ``because I was broke, and I needed a scholarship, and when I asked for a scholarship, I was told I was going to be given one because a former teacher of mine in South Carolina was such a good friend of the school, but that my work didn't deserve it. And I said, well, then I didn't want it. It was a commercial art school, and I said I wasn't going to be a commercial artist; so I left and became a messenger boy.''

After closing here, ``The Drawings of Jasper Johns'' goes to the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland (Aug. 19-Oct. 28), and then to the Hayward Gallery in London (Nov. 29-Feb. 3, 1991).

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