Jasper Johns’s show Regrets, Jasper Johns, currently on display at MoMA, is a small, intimate exhibit whose elegiac overtones are appropriate for new work by the eighty-four-year-old artist, now in the sunset of one of the great careers in the history of American art. Regrets — which takes its title from a stamp Johns made for auto-declining invitations, a Johnsian artifact if ever there was one — is a curious, melancholy affair, somber, self-referential, and thus perhaps an oddly fitting capstone to an oeuvre marked by opacity and muted emotional timbre.
Johns, of course, is one of the few living artists whose legacy is so monumental that his work goes directly from his studio into MoMA. Regrets comprises two paintings, three series of prints, and a number of drawings and smaller mixed-media work, all of which date from 2012 on. The seed of the pictures in the show was a battered second-hand photograph of a dejected Lucien Freud, which in typical fashion Johns traced the outline of, doubled along a vertical axis, and then proceeded to use as the basis for a series of increasingly gnomic visual iterations.
The technique first surfaced in Johns’s 1983 masterpiece Racing Thoughts, which marked a turning point in his career — the last time he introduced a major structural motif to go along with the celebrated flags, numbers, and cross-hatches. Most of what he has done since has played variations on this technique, and what one thinks of Regrets will largely depend on what one thinks of this particular graphical strategy. I myself count it as one of his least successful inventions, being conceptually forced and often quite visually ugly, a motif that reached its nadir with the — to my mind — painfully banal iconography of the Seasons work from 1987–89.
Nonetheless, the experimentations in Regrets have their rewards, and if a sense of diminishing returns lingers over the works, the familiarity and craftsmanlike mastery over the basic vocabulary retains its essential, mysterious appeal. The bifurcated image is reproduced in two large oil paintings in Johns’s signature gray, but also in aquatint etchings (in an uncharacteristically thoughtful touch, MoMA has included, in a vitrine, two of the copper plates used to make the prints) and ink-on-plastic prints (another of Johns’s missteps, in my view) as well as in watercolor, pencil, and mixed-media drawings and paintings. The result is a conspectus of the quintessential Johnsian aesthetic, wherein a found object or image is reproduced serially in a variety of media, thus becoming less a depiction per se than a visual meditation on the process of artmaking, in which the subject of the painting has been displaced by the medium. As a kind of bonus, the show includes a final series of Johns’s 0–9 prints, executed in black-and-grey monotype that are nominally unrelated to the central work but that in their austere beauty are actually the best thing in the exhibit.