Symbols Reinvented

What can we learn from icons and images that we often pass without a second thought? Plenty. With their winter exhibitions, two Manhattan museums invite visitors to rediscover symbols of nationhood, artistry, and spirituality that—once the weight of familiarity has been shaken off—ascend towards new meanings. The Whitney’s retrospective of American original Jasper Johns places the painter’s famous flag and map canvases in a career-spanning perspective, while two installations at the Rubin Museum invite viewers to meditate on and even interact with transcendent signs and signifiers.

 Installation view of Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror (Courtesy of the Whitney Museum)

Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror at the Whitney Museum of American Art through February 13, 2022

Jasper Johns’s defining paintings of targets, American flags, and the contiguous United States are an easy starting point for a review of the artist’s almost seventy years of work, but the Whitney has positioned these canvases rather differently. They aren’t the first ones you’ll see in Mind/Mirror; instead, they’re located somewhere at the nucleus of this revolving, now sobering, now dizzying show. If you’re here to treat Johns’s Three Flags (1958) and kindred compositions as the main attractions, you’ll need to pass through garish riffs on Picasso, overblown collage-like concoctions, and darkness-infused, weirdly-accented late canvases first. That journey is illuminating. The Johns that you will discover, here, is a lot more versatile and a lot messier than the Johns canvases in a typical art history book would lead you to believe.

Target with Four Faces, 1955, Jasper Johns (Courtesy of the Whitney Museum)

But first, a bit more about those flags and maps. With these creations, the sense of conflict and irony at the heart of much Johns’s work becomes particularly accessible. Three Flags, rather obviously, can be read as a patriotic work or as a satire of overblown patriotism. Does Johns hold the flag forth for the viewer’s renewed awe and appreciation, or simply whack his viewer over the head? Positioned nearby is the inverse-colored flag Moratorium (1969), with the typical red, white, and blue flipped to acid green, a black that initially registers as rotten purple, and toxic orange. There are the target paintings, which at times look like sublime and fearsome junk, and the map paintings, which get so messy that they don’t look like much of anything. His range of affect is remarkable, though not entirely surprising from an artist who once declared that “My experience with life is that it’s very fragmented.”

Three Flags, 1958, Jasper Johns (Courtesy of the Whitney Museum)

Dissonance is one of Johns’s greatest gifts, and some of the greatest canvases in Mind/Mirror are its most austere and unnerving. Standouts among the early works include Tennyson (1959) and Diver (1962-1963). Like the flag and map images, these compositions involve scuffed textures, with letters reduced to phantom traces—the name TENNYSON positioned the bottom of its titular painting, as though in danger of scrolling off or fading away. These are imposing creations, and they benefit from a few choice effects—angled strips of canvas, seething coal tones and flesh tones—made epic. More recent standouts exhibit some of the same somber personality, with new touches of formal care. The Catenary canvases exchange the foggy blacks and boggled surfaces of Tennyson and Diver for slate gray and stringed-up levers; Regrets and Slice pose elemental shapes—outlines and astrophysics maps—against overactive blackish grounds. In each case, what could have been a pet project in shape and movement pulses with its own otherworldly life.

According to What, 1964, Jasper Johns (Courtesy of the Whitney Museum)

There’s another reason that this side of Johns rewards contemplation: some of the “major” or “defining” Johns creations are, frankly, not particularly good. Metal panels with stenciled numbers are deployed to a soaring gallery with a picture-window of view of the Hudson; these fussy works fail to command a space it would take two or three Alexander Calders or Louise Nevelsons to really dominate. With the sixteen-foot-wide assemblage According to What (1964), Johns approaches a mixture of wackiness and grandeur that never really worked for him, but that worked magnificently for his colleague and romantic partner Robert Rauschenberg. Here, though, you will find a few touches—a cryptic silhouette, a twisted coat hanger—that show the hand of a master pulling beauty out of an unsatisfying lark. Elsewhere in Mind/Mirror, that same hand draws beauty from Americana, from darkness, from raw shape and form, from almost everything imaginable.

Installation views of Mandala Lab (courtesy of the Rubin Museum)

Mandala Lab and Shrine Room Projects at the Rubin Museum of Art through June 4, 2023

Ornate metalwork and epic wall hangings from the Himalayas have found a home at the Rubin Museum—as have recent projects that, in contrast, appear strikingly minimalistic. Occupying the same floor as the crowded and majestic Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room are recent projects by Rohini Devasher and Palden Weinreb. While Devasher’s video installation follows the progress of the sun and strips away most other forms of focus, Weinreb’s contribution Offerings brings together dark columns, luminous wax bowls, and an aura of reserve. The nearby Mandala Lab draws in even more contemporary artists—over a dozen, in fact—for an experience that is airier, faster, and if anything even more accessibly modern.

As easy as it is to be awed by the permanent collection of the Rubin, finding an easy emotional connection is daunting, and daunting in a way that—for New Yorkers raised on Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and the Cloisters—connecting with involuted Christian and European art often isn’t. The multimedia, multisensory Mandala Lab is designed to make some of the Buddhist background for the Rubin’s collections more accessible. Contemplate, at the beginning of the exhibition, which character weaknesses you exhibit and place a token in the appropriate transparent cylinder for each flaw. Strike a gong, submerge it in water, watch the ripples—and release anger in doing so.

Installation views of Mandala Lab (courtesy of the Rubin Museum)

Often, the Mandala Lab seems like a floor of the Asia Society Museum by way of the Liberty Science Center. Is that a complaint or an advertisement? Regardless of the exhibit’s own virtues, the installation gains much from being taken in concord not with historical and devotional artifacts but with the other modern-day creations that now grace the Rubin. The Mandala Lab is an ideal place to spark insights, and you can sustain those reflections seated before Devasher’s video installation or standing in front of Weinreb’s Offerings. Both works invite your mind to drift from their emphatic yet serene forms, setting a mood of calm that places failings, anger, and peace in their proper perspective.

Top photo: Installation view of Palden Weinreb, Offerings (courtesy of the Rubin Museum)