“Most viewers will only watch the show in one of the two venues,” he initially announced, adding that he felt the same way before the Covid-19 journey.
Then they talked about numbers. “The scale is tremendous,” he said, matching the square footage of the two museums for me. “The Show is 19,000 square feet at the Whitney. Philadelphia isn’t that big.” He added that the combined number of works, including paintings, drawings and prints, is more than 500 and that the Whitney has more than Philadelphia “if you count the additional 50 items of the almanac.”
What about the “mind/mirror” duality presented by the show’s title and dichotomous structure? “In the end,” Rothkopf said genuinely, “it was not the subject of the show.”
What is that topic? “For me, it was very important to bring Jasper’s work to life,” he said. “Older people may admire him and assume that he is one of the greatest living artists, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case for younger audiences at Whitney.”
Catalog for shows openly attracts new audiences. In lieu of a familiar lineup of art historians, the contributors represent a mix of voices, some flattering, some decidedly not. for example, ralph lemon, a choreographer who is Black, views Johns’ work through the eyes of his mother – another South Carolina native – and concludes that it fails to reflect his own experience of the Jim Crow South. According to Lemon, Johns “received tremendous advantages of Southern white predominance and black segregation”, but his art remains blind to that privilege.
Conversely, one could argue that the abundance of dual imagery in Johns’ work represents an act of social empathy, an identification with another. Clearly, the cover of the exhibition catalog is embossed with the figure of a white stick wielding a paintbrush. The back is embossed with a black stick figure. “It was Jasper’s idea,” Rothkopf said, “and his only contribution to the book’s design.”