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The illuminating exhibition Jasper Johns and Edvard Munch: Love, Loss, and the Cycle of Life recently at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), explored the deep connections between what seems at first glance to be the work of two starkly different artists. Both the exhibition and meticulously researched catalogue essay examine the common threads that bind Munch, the Norwegian Symbolist known for his dramatic, intensely personal depictions of the fleeting pleasures and enduring anxieties associated with life, death, and sexuality; and Johns, the post-1945 American artist known for rejecting precisely the notion of art as personal expression for which Munch is famous.
Curated by John Ravenal, formerly a curator at VMFA and currently the director of deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, this show was organized by VMFA and the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway. In Oslo, the exhibition was titled Johns+Munch and was part of the Munch Museum’s +Munch series that presented Munch’s work in relation to artists ranging from Vincent van Gogh to the contemporary Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard.
While the title of the VMFA show implied with its “and” that both artists would receive equal attention, the analytical focus of the show clearly rested on Johns. Munch was well represented with a wide-ranging selection of paintings, prints, drawings, and photographs, yet, despite the changes in his work over time, he appeared as a set figure whose interests and art remained fairly consistent. His work was presented as primarily autobiographical despite recent scholarship that challenges such interpretation. Here, however, this framing helped to establish the curatorial context in which Johns experienced it—in 1950 at the first Munch retrospective in the United States at the Museum of Modern Art and again in 1978 at a survey of Munch’s work at the National Gallery. Ultimately, given that the VMFA show concentrated on Johns’s engagement with Munch, the Oslo title seems more accurate—this was primarily an exhibition about Johns that added Munch’s impact as an analytical “lens” through which to see unexpected nuances in Johns’s art.
While Munch’s importance for Johns has been repeatedly documented, this exhibition delved into the implications of this connection to explicate previously unexplored dimensions of Johns’s crosshatching works of the 1970s and the ways that Munch seems to have inspired Johns’s shift into a new artistic phase in the 1980s. In the catalogue essay, Ravenal asserts that, paradoxically, the decade when Johns began to engage closely with Munch’s decidedly figurative work, “the abstract motif of crosshatching . . . a mark about making marks,” became the central feature of his art (4–5). Much of the show focused on examples of this work. The first gallery was devoted to Johns’s initial efforts in this mode, including three variations of Corpse and Mirror, presenting the specificity of his experiments with the fine line between the non-referentiality of abstraction and the decorative uniformity of pattern. Despite the initial impression of the regularity of Johns’s mark-making that these works convey, the overtly freehand quality of the strokes in each patch emphasizes the individuality of each mark, drawing attention to the difference in repetition that Johns’s work celebrates.
Galleries that followed included works by both artists, presenting elements of Munch’s art that affected how Johns thought about his own. Initial signs of Munch’s impact appeared in a selection of the numerous prints Johns made from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, featuring the 1960 sculpture Painted Bronze. This piece—a rendering in bronze of a Savarin coffee can containing paint brushes—is among several sculptures of household objects that Johns made around the same time. However, as Ravenal points out, Painted Bronze differs markedly from the others: it functions as a self-portrait. Johns, by choosing to depict his artist’s tools, identified through his own painted fingerprints, registered distance from his concern with impersonal abstraction and the mundane anonymity of everyday objects. He even began to use Painted Bronze as a type of calling card, featuring it in the catalogue cover he designed for his 1964 survey at the Jewish Museum in New York and later in the poster and catalogue cover for his 1977 show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Johns made many prints based on this design, which, starting with the Whitney Museum materials, also include his by-then signature crosshatching. For Ravenal, Johns’s frequent return to autobiographical subject matter was facilitated by his engagement with Munch’s self-examinations. This link is further justified by Johns’s echoing, in various ways, the skeletal arm that Munch included at the bottom of his 1895 lithographic Self-Portrait. For example, Johns includes an arm print at the base of his own 1981 lithograph Savarin, and in case this reference is not clear enough visually, he also includes the initials E. M.
The strongest section of the exhibition was the gallery in which Munch’s Self-Portrait between the Clock and the Bed was displayed with Johns’s impressive—and final—crosshatch paintings, which he produced between 1981 and 1983, all bearing the title Between the Clock and the Bed. Johns pays homage to Munch’s painting in the titles of these works and, more importantly, in the similarities between the strokes indicating the pattern of the bedspread prominent in Munch’s painting and the crosshatching that defines much of Johns’s work of the 1970s. Also included in this room was a bed covered with the actual bedspread that Munch depicts in his painting. Munch’s rendering varies the design of the original coverlet, and Johns—and others—noted the resemblance between it and Johns’s own crosshatchings. The inclusion of this bit of the artist’s “reality” is a pleasant surprise in an exhibition devoted so heavily to issues of referentiality and non-referentiality in artistic representation. It also acknowledged the strong links between art and design, and between ornament and abstraction that are frequently ignored in examinations of abstract art. The distinctive pattern of Munch’s bedspread grounds the lofty meditations inherent in Johns’s work in the aesthetics of everyday life, even as it highlights the centrality of the symbolic connotations of the bed—as site of birth, death, sex, and the uncanny intensity of dreams—in Munch’s work.
Ravenal argues that Munch’s self-portrait, painted so close to his death, shows him at the “cusp of a great transition” (60), and he argues that this image became central for Johns at a threshold of his own—the point when he shifted from the abstraction of his crosshatching works to works that consistently include recognizable imagery (69). Johns’s connections to Munch become even clearer in themes he addressed during the 1980s. This new phase coincided with the onset of the AIDS crisis, and issues of sex, life, and death became urgent for him. Again, Johns looked to Munch for cues. Munch’s work often focuses on disease and death, for example, on the ravages of syphilis and the affront its sexually transmissible nature posed to the strict moralism of his time. Johns grappled with similar concerns regarding AIDS. His painting Perilous Night (1982) incorporates multiple visual references, including a variation of Between the Clock and the Bed and figures from Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece created for a religious order that cared for sufferers of plague and skin disease. Collaged into the right side of the painting are pages from John Cage’s score of The Perilous Night (1943–4), the source of Johns’s title, and mounted to the top of the painting are three casts of disembodied arms, mottled garishly, that seem to allude to the Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions that can develop in advanced stages of AIDS. These references to visible marks of disease resonate with Munch’s painting Inheritance (1897–9), which highlights the ravaged skin and emaciation of a child born with syphilis who lies in the lap of his veiled, weeping mother. Like syphilis, AIDS, which was initially assumed by many to affect only gay men, was widely regarded as evidence of divine judgment for transgressions against heterosexual monogamy. Johns confronts such prejudice more allusively than Munch does, but both artists communicate equally clearly the hypocrisy of their societies and their own levels of sexual anxiety.
The exhibition’s account of Johns’s engagement with Munch could have ended with Perilous Night, and the importance of Munch for Johns would have been more than adequately demonstrated. Nonetheless, additional evidence was deemed necessary. The final gallery included several of Munch’s photographs, which, along with more prints and paintings, appear with the four paintings of Johns’s The Seasons (1987). In this final juxtaposition, Munch’s work far outshines Johns’s, even given the dramatic differences in their respective scales. Despite their smallness, Munch’s photographs play elaborately with shadows and the shortcomings of vision and the visible, offering far more visual challenge and complexity than Johns’s large-scale, rather banal ruminations on seasons changing, time passing, and all the clichés attached to such tritely “grand” themes. This final gallery reveals that both artists were capable of creating work with equal levels of visual and intellectual intricacy, allowing Munch’s work to transcend purely biographical interpretations. Perhaps, in the end, the “and” of the title of this exhibition was justified after all.
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