Jasper Johns Lightbulb, 1958

Jasper Johns Light Bulb, 1958

If Target Practice was a sprawling survey of thirty years of art around a specific theme, then Jasper Johns Lightbulb is almost its direct opposite with its laser tight focus on not only one artist but only one particular piece of imagery within that artists repertoire. That image of course is the light bulb; an artifact that Johns first sculpted in sculpt-metal in 1958 which he would go on to sculpt various versions of this piece as well as create numerous prints of it. Later he created a sculpture of a light bulb, its socket and a twist of wire all laid out as if baubles on a shelf. This was again the subject of numerous prints. In the early 70s on finding an “English Light bulb” with its distinctive “bayonet” style base he again made a sculpture of it in which it was displayed like a seashell. This was the subject for prints and paintings as were the other sculptures. His final works (so far anyway) involving the lightbulb are a return to his original lightbulb this time as prints.

Jasper Johns English Lightbulb 1970

Jasper Johns English Light Bulb 1970

This show originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and pulled together pieces from public and private collections from around the US.  Most impressive to me was the amount of proofs and pieces from Jasper Johns private holdings demonstrating that he was committed to this project.  Inexplicably the sculpture for English Light Bulb (pictured above) only appeared at two of the three museums that ran this show Seattle not being one of them. The fantastic catalog that accompanies this show does have a nice photograph of this piece as it does for each piece in the show. This catalog, unlike the Target Practice catalog, can be purchased online and I’d have to say would be a worthy purchase for the Johns fan. There are four short essays, informative but not overly speculative at the beginning of the book followed by sections for the sculptures and works on paper.  Each piece is give their own page with no other text or  images there. A nice presentation of these works.

Johns has a reputation of coldness (the “Iceman” of modern art) and remove with a Duchamp-ian use of appropriation and (as Target Practice hammered home) a constant questioning of painting.  He picks a common object, selected for its familiarity more than anything else and explore it over and over in a variety of formats: sculpture, painting, prints and so on. All this is well and good but I can’t say that’s what attracts me to the Johns pieces that I like so much. I find his use of these objects to be closer to how Keith Rowe uses the radio – its a “found object” that owes its conceptual basis to Duchamp, but the intention and use is definitively post-Duchamp.  Duchamp’s ready-mades are a commentary on art and being an artist (among other things, sure) whereas I think that Johns and Rowe use the notion of a found object as piece of something greater.  Johns doesn’t simply pick a ligh tbulb and display it, elevated to the status of art by his signature. Nor does Rowe turn on the radio and let it play as the piece in and of it self.  Its the insertion and manipulation of these objects into other contexts that is the key to their art I think.  It adds commentary and it charges the work with other meanings, but they in and of themselves are part of a greater whole.  At least this is how I see it.

Jasper Johns English Lightbulb, 1970
Jasper Johns Light Bulb, 1970

I’ve appreciated Johns for a while now, but only recently have I become especially taken with a number of his works. It has been a project of my own that led me to this wider exploration of his works.  This project has been exploring the notion of “gray” in music and has led to a series of pieces that I qualify as such. These pieces are all paired with color photographs that I have taken that also express this palette.  Its an interesting musical notion, one that became of interest to me in context of live recordings of silence, as Cage of course pointed out there really is no silence the music continues when the musicians aren’t playing.  In recordings, unless there is something else going on, the “silence” takes on this characteristic that I tend to think of as “gray”.  For this project I’ve been trying to abstract this grayness to capture this essence of silence, but through sound.  As I always do when I’m exploring ideas such as this I look at how others have expressed this notions which led me to Johns. Gray is a constant in Johns work, from the sculpt-metal of these early sculptures, to his prints and paintings.  The expressive qualities of his grays I find captivating and his gray on gray pieces suck in my eye in a similar fashion as solid black painting might.  I spent quite some time at this exhibition lost in the swirls of gray that form the background of many of the prints and the neutral seeming surfaces of the sculptures.  Some of the most captivating were black paint on film whose surface and transparency led to a rich dark gray that seemed to have incredible depth.  As I usually do in a gallery I was listening to music on my iPod and in this case I listened to the current pieces in my Gray Sequence and quite enjoyed the correlations.