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Artist Explores Color Through Gray

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Artist Explores Color Through Gray

Jasper Johns’ Gray Flag

You’ve probably seen Jasper Johns’s famous painting of the American flag in red, white, and blue. But during his long career, Johns returned to that image—and many others—painting it again, in gray. For Johns, gray takes viewers places other colors can’t. One hundred- thirty Jasper Johns pieces are the subject of a new exhibit opening tomorrow at the Art Institute. Jasper Johns: Gray is part of the Art Institute of Chicago’s year-long focus on The American Perspective. The exhibition runs through January 6.

Jasper Johns came of age in the 1950s when abstract expressionism ruled the art world. After brief stints in art school and the army, the South Carolina native moved to a loft in lower Manhattan owned by painter, Robert Raushenberg. One night, in 1954, the idea for his American flag painting came to him in a dream. He woke up, painted it, and then he destroyed all the work he’d done before.

DRUICK: Rauschenberg says the first thing they did was get up every morning and went into the studio and the first order of business was to shake off the influence of abstract expressionism.

Douglas Druick of the Art Institute co-curated Jasper Johns Gray with James Rondeau. Druick says Johns believes a painting is an object, in and of itself, and not merely a window onto a scene.

DRUICK: And that’s one of the reasons that he turns to the color gray in the months following the completion of that first flag because he would later say, after making a whole group of works in gray in the late fifties and early sixties, he would saythat he used gray because it allowed him to get around the problem of color.

For Johns the problem is color is too emotional. Druick says Johns sees gray as a medium. Like oil paint, or charcoal.

DRUICK: And what he’s interested in doing is, for example taking the flag motif and doing it in one medium and another and another, over a period of years, to see how the motif is subjected to new pressures by being reconceived in different media. Yes, the motif stays the same but more importantly, the whole work changes because working in a different medium is working in a different language.

FISH: I think it’s one of the most unusual ideas for a retrospective.

Julia Fish teaches in the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This semester she’s leading a graduate seminar called, “Sight; Reading and the Second Look Toward a Context for Jasper Johns: Gray”

FISH: What is unusual, is that Johns said that this would be a territory of investigation in which all of his main ideas and works in all media would have some voice in gray. So it’s putting on a sort of special set of glasses to see someone thinking about their work in a particular way. So Gray becomes a position for him to refer to his work

Gray is a color that Johns arrives at by many different routes. Sometimes he blends black and white, but other times he may mix all the primary colors together, or mix opposing colors on the color wheel, creating richly undertoned shades. Sections of the retrospective are arranged around John’s famous motifs on their journeys to gray: the American flag begins in primary colors, moves to secondary colors, then resolves in gray, as do his famous targets and crosshatch series. But in Johns, gray is not so much the absence of color, as it is evidence that no two grays are quite the same.

For Chicago Public Radio, I’m Robbie Harris.

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