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Museum of Fine Arts, Houston counts to 100 with Jasper Johns show

Houston Chronicle:
Screenshot_2019-12-19 940x0 jpg (JPEG Image, 940 × 1145 pixels) - Scaled (84%)
"86, Catalogue Raisonné," one of 100 monoprints on view with other works in "Jasper Johns: 100 Variations on a Theme," through Feb. 16 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Photo: Private collection / © 2019 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NYJasper

Jasper Johns, who often is called America’s most important living artist, is nearly 90.

To celebrate, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is debuting “Jasper Johns: 100 Variations on a Theme.” The show is built upon a series of 100 monoprints Johns produced during 10 days in 2015.

Monoprints are each unique, akin to drawing or painting with a printing press. They utilize a plate with some fixed and repeatable carved, etched or engraved lines. But when the plate is topped with paper and run through the press, one strong impression results, and it cannot be replicated exactly.

Working from a single plate with elements he rearranged 100 times, Johns used a half-dozen of his signature motifs: an etched imprint of his hand; symbols of American sign language; stenciled numbers and letters; leaves and strings. But that came after some extended experimentation. Curator Dena Woodall said Johns tinkered with 11 plates before settling on the one he would finally use for the project, working with his longtime printmaker, John Lund, who applied the ink and ran them through the press.

Johns apparently made the monoprints on a bit of a whim, to accompany a deluxe edition of his catalogue raisonné of paintings and sculpture that would have been offered to just 100 people, each of whom would have received one print. (This also accounts for their smallish size, about 11-by-14 inches each.) But the deluxe edition was never produced, and the artist gave all 100 pieces to a friend.

The Wildenstein Institute, which published the standard catalogue raisonné, suggested showing the monoprint series at the MFAH. “It sounded like an opportunity to be able to look at them all together, which never would have occurred if the deluxe edition had been made,” Woodall said.

Johns has consistently explored progressive imagery with a handful of motifs, including flags and targets, for 60 years. But he had never made such a large series, so fast, Woodall said. She imagines that the artist was just really “in the groove” of playing with the imagery.

She included other works on paper from the museum’s collection to provide a balance and offer a two-sided look at Johns’ creative process — suggesting differences one might see in a sustained series, such as “Untitled (Red, Yellow, Blue),” with which he has tinkered for decades; versus the massive series done very quickly.

Each of the monoprints clearly informs the next, forming a narrative chain that becomes a more intimate and intense exercise in looking. Woodall has hung the prints in groups of ten, partly because she felt it might be hard to see nuances otherwise. Even so, they are a lot to take in, best treated as a meditation. When you stand back and soak them in, the progressive images convey a sense of motion or passing time, like the frames of a film. Woodall sees a crescendo building in the middle, where the artist was most playful and exaggerated.

While the Menil Drawing Institute’s recent inaugural exhibition showed Johns’ inventiveness across multiple drawing mediums with many large, dramatic works, the black-and-white monoprints of MFAH’s “100 Variations on a Theme” are a nice coda. They are an ultimate expression of his mantra, “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.”