The Dutch Wives, (encaustic and collage on canvas) 1975, Jasper Johns.
A special challenge for university art museums can be finding ways to produce relevant, forward-thinking shows while not just serving but also involving the student body. To focus on student work, as some stakeholders might like (see Rose Art Museum scandal, circa 2009), squanders the riches often at academic museums’ disposal; to simply highlight the collection or mount borrowed works limits educational opportunities.
Harvard University Art Museums’ current show, Jasper Johns / In Press: The Crosshatch Works and Logic of Print, offers an elegant, successful solution.
The show, on view through August 18, began as an undergraduate course in the university’s History of Art and Architecture Department. Students were asked to create an exhibition that studies Johns’s encaustic and collage painting The Dutch Wives (1975), on loan from the artist himself, and examines its relationship to other works in the museums’ collections.
The show studies Johns’s signature “crosshatch” technique – adapted from the parallel and perpendicular lines historically used for shading in etching and other printmaking techniques – contextualizing them within the history and practice of printmaking. We see similar patterns on objects like Mesopotamian seals dating back to around 3000 BC, for example, and an Albrecht Dürer engraving from 1513.
Johns is most often associated with pioneering conceptual artists Robert Rauschenberg (his late partner), choreographer Merce Cunningham, and composer John Cage, and is best known for works featuring universally recognizable symbols like numerals and the American flag, which he calls “the thing the mind already knows.” And here, as in those works, there’s more than meets the eye.
I have to admit, I find a lot of conceptual art much more fun to think about than to behold—and even then it’s easy to be, shall we say, underwhelmed.
But this tidy little show of just 23 objects and two videos does a great job of demystifying Johns, printmaking techniques, and the extensive, but often imperceptible thought behind his very complex, very viewable works.