“Most viewers will only see the show in one of two places,” he declared at the outset, adding that he had felt that way even before Covid-19 curtailed travel.
Then he talked about numbers. “The scale is tremendous,” he noted, tallying the square footage of the two museums for me. “The show is 19,000 square feet at the Whitney. Philadelphia is not quite as big.” He added that the combined number of works, which includes paintings, drawings and prints, exceeds 500 and that the Whitney has more than Philadelphia “if you count an additional 50 items of ephemera.”
What about the “Mind/Mirror” duality posited by the show’s title and bifurcated structure? “In the end,” Rothkopf said matter of factly, “that wasn’t to be the theme of the show.”
What is that theme? “For me, it was very important to make Jasper’s work feel alive,” he said. “Older people may admire him and take for granted that he is among the greatest living artists, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true for younger viewers at the Whitney.”
The catalog for the show openly courts new audiences. In lieu of a familiar lineup of art historians, the contributors represent a mix of voices, some flattering, some decidedly not. For instance, Ralph Lemon, a choreographer who is Black, views Johns’s work through the eyes of his mother — another South Carolina native — and concludes that it fails to reflect her experience of the Jim Crow South. Johns, according to Lemon, was “afforded the emphatic advantages of southern white primacy and Black segregation,” but his art remains blind to that privilege.
One could argue, to the contrary, that the profusion of double imagery in Johns’s work represents an act of social empathy, an identification with the Other. Tellingly, the cover of the exhibition catalog is embossed with a white stick figure wielding a paintbrush. The back is embossed with a black stick figure. “That was Jasper’s idea,” Rothkopf said, “and his only contribution to the design of the book.”