The chance to return to a work again and again is the greatest benefit an art museum offers. The first time I saw the Art Institute's new acquisition, Jasper Johns's Near the Lagoon (2003), I was awed by this towering painting's insistent silence. Draped across a dense forest of gray and off-gray daubs of paint is a lone strand of twine, hanging naturally in a catenary curve--a shape used in the design of suspension bridges and one that Johns has employed more than once in recent works. Sewn-on canvas patches combine with other elements to create a kind of puzzle. The second time I was surprised by tremendous melancholy. Johns had pressed the twine against the paint when it was wet to produce necklacelike curves, both graceful and limp. Hinged panels at the side recall altarpieces but are far too narrow to contain pictures. On a third visit, the painting's mystery and sense of resignation combined to charge each element with a secret meaning.
Johns, who was born in 1930, had great public success with his very first one-person show, which included flag and target paintings, in 1958. A major figure ever since, he's justly credited with bridging the seemingly incompatible worlds of abstract expressionism and pop art and has managed to retain an emotional dimension in his work while treating meaning as paradoxical at best.
Near the Lagoon was purchased and put on display this year, as former Art Institute director James N. Wood was preparing to retire. Though the museum has been collecting Johns's drawings and prints for years, it lacked a major painting. "This is something the curators and I were deeply concerned about," Wood says. "Johns doesn't paint many pictures, and they're extremely sought after, but it's been a priority." Chicago collector Muriel Newman agreed to let the Art Institute sell a Picasso she'd donated, which neither she nor Douglas Druick, the Art Institute's European painting and prints and drawings curator, thought was up to the level of the Art Institute's best Picassos. The curators decided to use the funds to purchase a Johns.
The Art Institute became interested in Johns's catenary paintings because it already owned an untitled catenary drawing (now on view in the same gallery as the painting). When Wood, Druick, and James Rondeau, the Art Institute's curator of contemporary art, heard that Johns had recently completed a catenary work, they flew to his home in Saint Martin for a look. Near the Lagoon is one of a group of paintings scaled for display on a wall in Johns's home; a lagoon is visible through a nearby window. Johns was considering keeping the painting, but their enthusiasm for it convinced him to sell.
"One of the things I found so moving about Near the Lagoon," Wood says, "is that it's a masterpiece by a totally mature artist creating profound work at an advanced age. He's looking back on himself and on the history of art. There are a number of extraordinary artists who did this--Titian, Rembrandt, Matisse. We're obsessed in this country with the notion that an artist's earlier art is always the most important." Druick says he finds the painting "deeply poetic and spiritual. It evokes--without being limited to--the dip in the body of Christ in depictions of the deposition." He adds that the collaged canvas pieces are Johns's reference to a painting Manet did but disliked and cut up, later pieced together by Degas. "There are so few works of art that simultaneously embody looking, making, and thinking about painting," Rondeau says. "It's in the tradition of Velazquez, Manet, Cezanne, Pollock, and the plan is to keep it on view almost all the time."
Mark Rosenthal, an independent curator and Johns expert, points out that Near the Lagoon is the first and only vertical catenary painting. "One thing that I find deeply moving about it is the absence of the anecdotal," he says. "There's almost no illustrative element. It is really about painting, and Johns is one of the great pure painters. You can meditate in front of this incredibly rich avalanche of encaustic as you slowly look within these grays and see bits of blues and reds. It has tremendous life."
Another Chicago museum owns a Johns painting that recalls Near the Lagoon: the Museum of Contemporary Art's equally mournful In Memory of My Feelings--Frank O'Hara (1961), whose gray surface is punctuated by a hanging fork and spoon. Though the MCA has displayed it, this celebrated painting isn't on view now, and the museum has no current plans to exhibit it. Yet Rondeau says it's the picture the Art Institute covets perhaps more than any other in the MCA's collection. "If we owned it," he says, "we'd build a special room for it."
Jasper Johns: Near the Lagoon
Art Institute, Gallery 262
Michigan and Adams
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Gregorio Binuya--Getty Images, Fred Camper.