Yale School of Art exhibition explores enduring impact of Jasper Johns on contemporary artists

It is widely accepted among historians of contemporary art that American artist Jasper Johns (b. 1930) is not an easy person to interview. His notoriously elusive eloquence with writers was dubbed “the Johnsian conversation” by Michael Crichton, a critic and friend of the artist, referring to Johns’ deadpan and oblique way of answering questions about his life and work (see below).

A new group exhibition at the Yale School of Art has engaged 20 contemporary artists in a fresh round of “Johnsian conversations” with the seminal artist as its muse.

Opening Feb. 17, “Reliable Tension, or: How to Win a Conversation about Jasper Johns” features approximately 35 works in an array of mediums, including painting, video, photography, sculpture, and multi-media. The exhibition is free and open to the public. An opening reception to which the public is invited will take place on Monday, Feb. 17 from 5–7 p.m.

According to artist John Pilson, critic in the Yale School of Art and curator of the exhibition, “Reliable Tension” aims to disturb the tidier notions of influence.

“I’m equally fascinated by Johns’ work as I am in the dialogue that surrounds it,” he said. “If Johns is the lens, this group of artists is unsettling and exciting.” Pilson added that Johns acts as a muse and model for evoking tensions between mediums, cultural iconography, and material languages, while at the same time challenging our definitions of an artwork’s subject.

Among the artists represented in the exhibition are Nam June Paik, Bruce Nauman, Stuart Elster, Glenn Ligon, Kianja Strobert, Alix Pearlstein, and Rachel Harrison. According to Pilson, the artists he selected share an illuminated current that exists between once-groundbreaking notions of “Pop” and the ongoing role that “uncanny recognitions” and familiar objects play in contemporary art.

“Reliable Tension” draws connections between a corridor-based sound installation by Nauman; a large scale painting by Susan Rothenberg; a constructed photograph by Thomas Demand; a mixed-media sculpture by Rachel Harrison; a video that blends performance and chance by Alix Pearlstein; intricate and personal photo-collages by John O’Reilly; a series of dialogue-driven pen-and-ink drawings by Raymond Pettibon; prints combining historical notions of the readymade and challenges to institutional histories by Glenn Ligon; and a series of canvases by Stuart Elster that apply surprising painterly rigor to images culled from a receding militarized past as well an up-to-the minute luxury goods landscape. According to Pilson, they all point to a productive anxiety about the meaning of medium in a post-medium age — a question that for many started with Johns and continues today.

Pilson noted that like all good conversations there isn’t a right or wrong answer — that one does not actually “win” a conversation about Johns. Rather, he said, Johns as a subject is generative for the discussions he provokes, which are as relevant now as ever.

“I want people to understand that the exhibition makes a virtue out of a certain kind of anarchy,” said Pilson. “The show allows each artist to be experienced individually, while at the same time suggesting a shared exploration that binds wildly disparate practices together.”

“Reliable Tension, or: How to Win a Conversation About Jasper Johns” is on view through March 28 at the 32 Edgewood Avenue Gallery in New Haven. The gallery is open Tuesday–Sunday noon–6 p.m. (closed Mondays). For information, call (203) 432-2600.

Jasper Johns in Conversation

An excerpt from David Sylvester’s interview with Jasper Johns (October 10, 1965)

Sylvester: In other words, the painting is not about the elements from which you have begun?

Johns: No more than it is about the elements which enter it at any moment. Say, the painting of a flag is always about a flag, but it is no more about a flag than it is about a brush stroke ...

Sylvester: But the process which is recorded as it were in the finished object — this process has an analogy to certain processes outside painting?

Johns: You said it.

Sylvester: I’m asking you.