The whole world in the ‘slices’ of art

at 91, jasper johns Impressive and touching personal work. During the lonely months of the pandemic, he completed a painting called “Slices” and a group of related drawings and prints. A standout is likely to be his upcoming show, “Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror”, opening a two-venue retrospective on September 29. Whitney Museum of American Art And this Philadelphia Museum of Art, The “Slice” is a large, horizontal and predominantly black oil painting that combines unrelated images of outer space and a map of the human knee.

When I first saw it in July at the artist’s barn in Sharon, Conn., I was bewildered and asked him to help me decode it. Without elaborating, he mentioned a name that was new to me: Margaret Geller.

A few days later I reached Dr. Geller, an astrophysicist astrophysics center in Cambridge, Mass., and recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, known as the “Genius Grant”. She is recognized as a pioneer in the mapping of the universe. The story of her history with Johns, as it turns out, sheds much light on the origins of her painting and the role that a random encounter with a man can play in the creation of a work of art.

I learned that she retains a fascination with Johns from 1996, when, on a visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, she saw her “Mirrors’ Edge 2” (1993), a chalk-blue-and-gray canvas strewn met. Images that felt like clues to a mystery. She was joined by the lower half, which features a staircase, a depiction of a circling galaxy, and the figure of a stick falling head-on through space.

Dr. Geller, now 73, believed that painting chronicled, of all the crazy things, the ups and downs of research on cosmology. “To me, what the painting said is, you climb this ladder up to the Milky Way. You try to understand: How did it originate? What is it made of? And then you fall back through space into it. Don’t know if you are right or wrong.”

She was pleased to learn that the galaxy depicted in “Mirrors’ Edge 2” was M101. More than twice as large as our own Milky Way, M101 was cataloged in the 18th century by the French astronomer Charles Messier, who accounts for M in its name. Its spiral arms have earned it an affectionate nickname: the Pinwheel Galaxy.

Dr. Geller could not wait to write to Johns to ask how he became so knowledgeable about astronomy. But he had read that it was too private and contemptuous to discuss the meaning of his work. She thought, “I don’t want to write and she doesn’t have to write back.”

Two decades have passed. In the fall of 2018, encouraged by a friend, she finally sent a letter extolling how much “Mirrors’ Edge 2” meant to her. He attached a computer printout of his own work: a map called “Slices of the Universe,” which shows the distribution of nearby galaxies. Its publication in 1986 brought him and his associates great fame in their field.

Six months passed before hearing back from Johns. “It was a very brief letter,” he told me. “I asked him how he found M101 and the answer I got was, ‘I’m not interested in astronomy.’ So I thought that was the end of him.”

It was, in fact, Johns told me, far from the end. Interested in all kinds of images, the artist was interested in the map sent to him. Looking around, he found some educational videos in which Dr. Geller talks about his work. What is the universe? “This is our home,” she told a PBS talk-show host in 1993. “This is the last line of our address.”

Johns is known for his engagement in cartography. (The Whitney show will include a selection of his map drawings of the United States, in which his vigorous brushwork crosses state borders and sometimes dissolves them.) Dr. Geller’s map held a special appeal to him. When you look at it up close, the random-seeming points and galaxies coalesce into a different and captivating shape—that of a giant stick figure, a pointillist gumby with outstretched arms and sloping legs. flows with clothes.

It was an amusing coincidence. Johns had long featured stickmen in his work. They usually appear in small circles and may be seen waving paintbrushes or dancing around the perimeter of things, perhaps due to their dear friend Merce Cunningham, the legendary modern dancer and choreographer, who died in 2009. Now, he learned from the “slice” map that nature had twirled its charming stick figure amidst the infinite darkness of the sky.

In early 2020, Dr. Geller received another letter from Johns, which shocked her. “He told me that he was thinking of making a painting, and since he was old, he was not sure that he would finish it. And if he finished it, I would partly for this painting Will be responsible. “

He had always found inspiration in the images he already had. You can start with his early “Flag” painting and his debt to seamstress Betsy Ross. According to art-history textbooks, his use of common themes led to the Pop Art movement of the ’60s. But unlike pop artists, his Campbell’s soup cans and comic-book ladies crying over the phone to their boyfriends, Johns isn’t interested in satirizing consumer culture. He is a more inner and poetic artist who shows how objects can be assigned to express feelings and thoughts, linking presence and absence.

“Slice”, at the end, borrows from Dr. Geller’s map, as viewers can see the painting make its debut in the Whitney half of “Mind/Mirror”. There he is: that funny stickman swinging across the sky, his body painted white in dots of red, blue and green.

Other elements are no less important. The painting derives most of its power from its terry, visceral surface. On the left, black pigment thins and drips, exposing a linear pattern (that is, based) along patches of bare canvas. drawings of leonardo’s knots) the light fades. Something’s going missing.

The right side, in contrast, is dominated by a hand-drawn illustration of the knee. It’s fixed in place with four little pieces of masking tape that look so real you might be tempted to peel them off the canvas, but they’re just a trompe l’oeil illusion. Johns found the original knee drawing, done by Jean-Marc Togodag, a high-school student in Cameroon, in the office of an orthopedist, whom the artist sees for his longstanding knee problems.

On the whole, Slice captures the randomness of life with a mixture of the painfully personal (a throbbing knee) and the cold impersonal (an infinite expanse of outer space) with no clear connection between them. The artist seems to be implying that even his paintings are mere objects, as distinct and forever silent as the maps and drawings and other oddities that he paints.

As Johns lamented when they first met in 1988, “One wants his work to be the world, but of course it is never the world. Work is In World; It never covers the whole thing.”

“Slices,” I think, on the other hand, are full of real relationships that cut across the distance of time and space. Although Dr. Geller never met the artist or spoke to him on the phone, the painting reminds us that relationships between individuals do not always require words. Sometimes a picture is enough. And sometimes a painting, like a galaxy, can be filled with dots of light.

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