At the age of 81, Jasper Johns continues to invent visual forms and modes of representation. A sizeable recent show of new sculpture and works on paper at Matthew Marks confirmed his tenacity through a pleasing combination (apprehension of which improved with subsequent visits) of the familiar and the unexpected. Ambiguity of meaning abounded as mediums, representations and works themselves were obscured, beginning with three small-scale ink drawings that Johns delicately executed on the flexible plastic of the children’s craft material Shrinky Dinks.
The gallery’s main room offered seven reliefs from 2007 to ’09 that revisit Johns’s exploration of gridded numerals, a subject he introduced (and became well-known for) in the late 1950s. The largest example, Numbers (2007), hung on the wall and dominated the space. Cast in aluminum, it measures approximately 107 by 83 inches. Despite its size, one was immediately drawn to the complex, coarse surface containing readable, transferred newspaper fragments of classified ads and headlines. Six smaller cast reliefs (each about 10 by 38 inches) in different metals and patinas, also of gridded numbers, stood on wooden pedestals. (Despite the similarities in works’ format and content, the patinas allow for markedly unique effects.) Unexpectedly, the display lent a contemplative somberness to the space as viewers circled the works and considered them more wholly. In addition, the backs of the reliefs were cast with devices for hanging them on the wall, countering a straightforward reading of the works as either freestanding or wall-hung.
Quietly, 0-9 (with Merce’s Footprint), 2009, refers to Johns’s old friend Merce Cunningham, who died the year the work was made. This wall-hung relief in bronze includes an impression of Cunningham’s footprint-perhaps a reminder of the indelible mark Cunningham made on Johns. But overall, throughout the show, Johns provided only ambiguous clues, leaving us, as usual, to decode the signs and symbols.
The back gallery had a significant group of new works on paper that reengage and rework longstanding motifs as well as introduce new ones, such as images of gourds with painted faces. However, perhaps the most notable works were three on paper and a sculpture, in a side gallery, all based on a letter from Vincent van Gogh to Émile Bernard. The intaglio diptych Fragment of a Letter (2010) has on the left a sign language translation of part of the letter and, on the right, the printed text. The letter in sign language becomes a kind of visual puzzle. The use of this alternate alphabet represents a new engagement on the part of the artist-a reworking of his recurring handprint (which appears in the diptych) and a testament to his continued experimentation at this phase of his career. Johns has appropriated these hand signs as a new, malleable vocabulary with which to again challenge expected and straightforward meaning within his work.
Photo: Jasper Johns: Fragment of a Letter, 2010, intaglio on handmade paper, two sheets, each 447⁄8 by 301⁄2 inches; at Matthew Marks.