At 91, Jasper Johns is doing some impressive and touching personal work. During the lonely months of the pandemic, he completed a painting titled “Slice” and a group of related drawings and prints. Likely a star of his upcoming show, “Jasper Johns: Mind / Mirror,” a two-room retrospective that opens September 29 at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Slice” is a big one. predominantly black oil painting that combines unrelated images of a space map and a human knee.
When I first saw it in July in the artist’s barn in Sharon, Connecticut, I was mesmerized and asked him to help me decode it. Without giving details, he mentioned a name that was new to me: Margaret Geller.
A few days later, I contacted Dr Geller, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, known as the “Engineering Grant”. She is recognized as a pioneer in the mapping of the universe. The story of her history with Johns, ultimately, throws a lot of light on the genesis of her painting and the role that a random encounter with a person can play in creating a work of art.
I learned that she had harbored a fascination with Johns since 1996, when, on a visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, she saw her “Mirror’s Edge 2” (1993), a chalk blue and gray canvas. interspersed with images that looked like clues to a mystery. She was pierced by the lower half, which contains a ladder, an illustration of a swirling galaxy, and a stick figure falling head first into space.
Dr Geller, now 73, believed that the painting told, of all the crazy things, the ups and downs of cosmology research. “To me, what the painting says is you climb that ladder to the galaxy. You try to understand: how was he born? What is it made of? And then you fall back into space not knowing if you are right or wrong.
She was happy to find that the galaxy depicted in “Mirror’s Edge 2” was M101. Twice the size of our own Milky Way, M101 was cataloged in the 18th century by French astronomer Charles Messier, which explains the M in its name. Its spiral arms have earned it an affectionate nickname: the Pinwheel Galaxy.
Dr Geller was eager to write Johns to ask him how he had become so knowledgeable about astronomy. But she had read that he was excessively private and loath to discuss the meaning of his work. She thought, “I don’t want to write and he won’t answer me.
Two decades have passed. In the fall of 2018, encouraged by a friend, she finally sent a letter saying how much “Mirror’s Edge 2” meant to her. She has attached a computer copy of her own work: a map titled “Slice of the Universe,” which shows the distribution of nearby galaxies. Its publication in 1986 earned him and his collaborators great renown in their field.
Six months passed before she heard from Johns. “It was a very terse letter,” she told me. “I asked him how he found M101 and the answer I got was, ‘I’m not interested in astronomy.’ So I thought that was the end of it all.
It was, in fact, Johns told me, far from the end. Interested in images of all kinds, the artist was intrigued by the card she sent. While searching on Google, he found a few educational videos in which Dr. Geller explains his work. What is the universe? “This is our home,” she told a PBS talk show host in 1993. “This is the last line of our address.”
Johns is well known for his own interest in cartography. (The Whitney exhibit will include a selection of his cartographic paintings of the United States, in which his vigorous brushwork crosses state borders and sometimes dissolves them.) Dr. Geller’s map particularly appealed to him. When you look at him closely, the random-looking dots and galaxies merge into a distinct and delightful shape – that of a giant stick, a pointillist Gumby with outstretched arms and bowed legs flowing with the fabric of the universe.
It was a funny coincidence. Johns had long featured stickmen in his work. They usually appear in small groups and can wave brushes or just dance around the perimeter of things, perhaps a nod to his dear friend Merce Cunningham, the great modern dancer and choreographer, who died in 2009. Now he has learned from the “Slice” card that nature had spun her own alluring stick figure amid the endless darkness of the firmament.
In early 2020, Dr Geller received another letter from Johns, which made him jump. “He told me he was thinking of doing a painting, and since he was old, he wasn’t sure if he would finish it. And if he finished it, I would be partly responsible for this painting.
He was always inspired by pre-existing images. You can start with his early “Flag” paintings and his debt to seamstress Betsy Ross. Its use of mundane subjects, as art history textbooks point out, spawned the Pop Art movement of the 1960s. But unlike pop artists, with their Campbell’s soup cans and comic book women crying on the phone with their boyfriends, Johns is not interested in satirizing consumer culture. He is a more interior and poetic artist who shows how objects can be entrusted to express feelings and ideas, evoking presences and absences.
“Slice,” ultimately, borrows from Dr. Geller’s card, as viewers can see when the painting debuts in the Whitney half of “Mind / Mirror”. There he is: this funny stickman suspended in the sky, his body rendered in red, blue and green dots edged with white pigment.
Other elements are no less important. The paint draws much of its power from its tarry, visceral surface. On the left side, the black pigment thins and sinks, exposing spots of bare canvas as well as a linear pattern (which happens to be based on Leonardo’s knot designs). The light is fading. Something is disappearing.
The right side, on the other hand, is dominated by a hand-drawn illustration of a knee. It’s secured in place with four small pieces of duct tape that look so real you might be tempted to peel them off the canvas, but these are just a trompe l’oeil illusion. Johns found the original knee drawing, made by a Cameroonian high school student named Jean Marc Togodgue, in the office of an orthopedist the artist sees for his long-standing knee problems.
Overall, “Slice” captures the chance of life, with its mix of painfully personal (a throbbing knee) and coldly impersonal (the endless expanse of space) and no clear connection between them. The artist seems to say that even his paintings are mere objects, as separate and eternally silent as the maps and the illustrations and other quirks they represent.
As Johns lamented when we first met in 1988: “You want your work to be the world, but of course it’s never the world. The work is in the world; it never contains the whole.
On the other hand, “Slice”, I think, is full of authentic connections that span the distances of time and space. Although Dr. Geller has never met the artist or spoken to him on the phone, the painting reminds us that connections between individuals don’t always require words. Sometimes one picture is enough. And sometimes a painting, as much as a galaxy, can be full of bright spots.