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May 6, 2005: Jasper Johns at Matthew Marks


Jasper Johns opened at Matthew Marks in Chelsea with his Catenary series.

"After completing the installation of his 1996 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Jasper Johns retreated to his studio in Connecticut to wipe the slate clean, beginning a body of work that was a dramatic departure from anything he had made before. The first painting in this new series included a string hanging from upper right to lower left, generating a curve called a “catenary,” and this curve became the compositional backbone of the entire series."

There's something irresistably perverse about "the world's most expensive artist" making paintings that are basically a string hanging limp across the canvas. Then there are those little stick figures that show up in the prints, as if little men painting a giant mural. Oh, ah, yes -- the string on the canvases are secured to "sticks" that are hinged to the stretcher and some of them have faux wood stretchers painted on the canvas and on and on.

Most of the surfaces are blank, or so they appear at first but then you notice they're painted over or there's a barely legible glyph drawn over the surface and who are the people in the old photograph in the etchings?

White wine in real wine glasses and tablecloths put everyone on their best behavior. These are quiet paintiings and this isn't a noisy audience even if they aren't quite looking at the art. More look than you'd expect, though and look in a way that people learn to look at a Jasper Johns painting. You find a spot on the surface then slowly scan until you hit something and in this case that something is usually on the left or the right edge. Go to the top or the bottom and you'll slide right off.

Obfuscation is to make something bewildering and difficult to understand. In computer terms it is the act of nondestructively changing source code to make it harder to read and understand. Johns is open source but only he knows its string theory.