Can you always articulate why you like or dislike a piece of art? I can’t. Several years ago, when the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago had just opened, I was just looking for a bench, exhausted by the many wondrous works I had seen. Instead, my eye was caught by a very large, monochromatic — painting, collage, sculpture? — I couldn’t even tell what it was!
It was Jasper Johns’ Near the Lagoon.
I examined it minutely. Time passed. I sat with it. I tried to sketch it. What was it about it that so riveted me? Jasper Johns? He was the guy with the flags, right? Nope, not interested . . . or was I? I needed to know more.
White Flag. It’s sort of white, sort of a flag. But far more interesting. Johns is interested in “how we see and why we see.” He wants us not only to look past the known object, the flag, but into it. “At first I had some idea that the absence of color made the work more physical,” he explained. “Early on I was very involved with the notion of the painting as an object and tended to attack that idea from different directions.”
Johns attached objects to the surfaces of his encaustic paintings. In the Catenary series, of which Near the Lagoon is the final and largest one, the looping string is the catenary (the curve made by string hanging from two points). And it’s a real string. In Near the Lagoon, one of the things that first struck me was the string — I had to get close to see if it was painted or not. And then I laughed because the actual string casts a shadow, but there’s a painted shadow as well. And a little ditch caused by the string’s having gotten stuck in the wax and being pulled out. The color, in the wax, makes each brush stroke individual, the texture a real physicality. And the side of this fascinating work of art looks like part of an old door or shutter. A window? A real window, and a window into the painting. The real and the painted. The object and the object objectified. Johns asks us to look and to see. To observe. And his work is very richly textured and rewarding.