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Jasper Johns: The Prints

February 2, 2008 – April 13, 2008


The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) will present a retrospective exhibition of prints by Jasper Johns beginning February 2 and continuing through April 13, 2008, in the Museum’s Main Galleries. The exhibition will feature 100 lithographs, screenprints, and intaglios made between 1960 and 2007. Together, the works comprise the largest collection of Johns’ prints ever displayed in the Midwest.

A painter who also makes prints, Jasper Johns has been renowned in both mediums for nearly five decades. He has made prints continuously since 1960, working with many of the world’s most distinguished print publishers, including Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles; Atelier Crommelynck in Paris, in association with Petersburg Press of London and New York; Simca Print Artists in New York; and Universal Limited Art Editions in Bay Shore, New York.

Typically, Johns’ prints incorporate imagery that appeared previously in his paintings, including the targets, flags, maps, stenciled numerals and alphabets, crosshatching, and flagstone patterns with which he has long been associated. However, MMoCA’s Curator of Collections Rick Axsom, who organized Jasper Johns: The Prints, says the significance of Johns’ art is found in his exploration of meaning itself and how meaning cannot be fixed. Writing in the exhibition brochure, Axsom states, “Johns ponders our elusive knowledge of the world through perception, language, cognition, and memory, conducting his inquiries within the realm of art, and subject to the viewer’s own interpretation. . . . Pursuing paradox and contradiction by juxtaposing sensuously colored surfaces with structured design, illusion with literal fact, and painterly brushwork with defined line, Johns creates visual puzzles whose layered and unresolved ambiguities tease the eye and mind.”

Johns himself addressed the focus of his interest in an interview from 1964: “I am concerned with a thing’s not being what it was, with its becoming something other than what it is, with any moment in which one identifies a thing precisely and with the slipping away of that moment, with at any moment seeing or saying and letting it go at that.”

Axsom believes that the beauty and technical innovation evident in Johns’ prints, as well as their ambitious expressive content, puts Johns alongside Rembrandt Van Rijn, Francesco Goya, and Pablo Picasso as one of the greatest printmakers in the history of western art.

A 30-minute film, Jasper Johns: Take an Object, will run continuously in the main galleries as part of the exhibition. This short documentary takes its title from Johns’ defining sketchbook notation: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” The video begins in 1972 with Johns in his studio at work on the painting Map and follows the artist over the next 17 years, culminating in 1989 with his work on the print The Seasons. Jasper Johns: Take an Object was produced by Hans Namuth and Judith Wechsler.

On view in the exhibition are both Johns’ first print, Target, a lithograph from 1960, and his most recent, an etching, Within, from 2007. Like many of Johns’ prints, Within seems to summarize themes and motifs from earlier works. In this case, shadowed crosshatching is barely discernible beneath a gray flagstone pattern. The etching’s theme of seeking meaning beneath the surface of things is an apt metaphor for Johns’ art and a fitting conclusion to this retrospective exhibition of his prints.

Exhibition Support

Major funding for Jasper Johns: The Prints has been provided by the Madison Print Club; the Steinhauer Charitable Trust; James and Sylvia Vaccaro; Associated Bank; Webcrafters-Frautschi Foundation; the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission with additional funds from the Overture Foundation; Paula and David Kraemer; Willy Haeberli and Gabriele Haberland; Jeff Levy; Anonymous; Oompa Toys; Jane Ann Blumenfeld; Madison Trust of the Brittingham Fund, Inc.; a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board, with funds from the State of Wisconsin; and the Art League of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.