Who Won the Jasper Johns Duel?

Philadelphia put on the better version of the artist’s retrospective, but New York got to keep some of the most famous works


As the pioneering Jasper Johns retrospective comes to the end of its historic run, a controversy that marked the beginning of the show might now be easier to understand. The New York Times previewed the long-awaited show with a feature by Deborah Solomon, a veteran Times writer with a sidelight as Jasper Johns’s biographer. The ensuing tempest on social media was not really worth noticing. But it did what it was designed to do: distract from a serious issue.

Solomon’s story took some care to explore a central question surrounding the show: was the concept of having dual exhibitions in Philadelphia and New York a gimmick, a thesis, or, perhaps, the product of tension and competition between the two institutions? Solomon did good work in her story. She uncovered disharmony between the curators of the two shows, between some of Johns’ collectors and between the two different institutions. 

From the article, one could discern a level of friction between the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Whitney. Carlos Basualdo, Philadelphia’s curator, Solomon said, views the two shows as halves of a single whole in which Philadelphia would “emphasize the unsteady, ever-shifting meaning of Johns’s work, while the Whitney half is more likely to have a step-this-way clarity.”

The Whitney’s Scott Rothkopf didn’t seem to get the memo. Solomon quoted him as dismissing the two-cities-one-show idea, effectively erasing the Philadelphia museum from the event by pointing out the reality that most people would only see one of the shows.

Rothkopf’s show was meant to inspire a new generation of Johns admirers. In other words, Rothkopf was going to make the famously aloof Johns relevant again. “Older people may admire him and take for granted that he is among the greatest living artists,” Rothkopf told Solomon, “but I don’t think that’s necessarily true for younger viewers at the Whitney.”

Solomon’s conclusion was that two shows might be reflections of the different temperaments of the two curators. One was “poetic,” she wrote. “The other was competitive and expedient.” 

Those words are exemplified by an anecdote Solomon offered about the 1961 painting “Good Time Charley,” around which the Whitney conceived one of its ten rooms. The painting had been on loan to the Philadelphia Museum for nearly a quarter century before its owners viewed the retrospective as an opportunity to trade up and have their work displayed at the Whitney. Correspondence between the Philadelphia curator and the owners got rancorous, and they pulled their loan. Institutional manners might have suggested that Rothkopf decline the work. He did not. 

Jerry Saltz—sometime art critic, full-time social media personality—attacked Solomon for the story which he believed put forth “some fabricated idea that the Whitney Museum and Philadelphia Museum of Art are in competition and at war with one another over the Johns retrospective. I believe that is a false narrative.”

Saltz, who often comments on Rothkopf’s Instagram posts, offered no explanation why Solomon would “fabricate” the competition, nor did he refute any of her anecdotes, quotes or details. More to the point, there are additional facts that would suggest the Whitney has been raiding the Philadelphia museum of its Johns works for some time. In response, Philadelphia put the time, effort and intellectual rigor into pulling off a far better show than the one that would inevitably get all of the attention in New York. 

Now that the shows have been up for four months, a close reading allows us to fill in some of the blanks at which Solomon was hinting. It looks like Solomon was actually downplaying the level of friction between the two institutions. 

Anyone who has been to both shows can tell you that, despite being built upon the same ten-gallery template with each gallery exploring a parallel theme, the two shows are very different. The show in Philadelphia is a tightly argued, revelatory show defining for some, and redefining for others, one of the most important artists of the 20th century. 

Johns is a remote figure whose work requires a hermeneutics of its own. That’s one way to say it is open to many interpretations. But Basualdo, in Philadelphia, didn’t let that paralyze him. Philadelphia offers a clear view of Johns as an artist beguiled by process and experimentation whose work began with the exploration of repeating, bold gestures. Over time, however, his interest in making heroic works gave way to a passion for the process of making art that superseded managing the result. 

The Whitney’s show offers no similar interpretation, nor does it offer an alternative. Even though the Whitney show is built on a rigid template shared with the one in Philly, it lacks the coherence. One reason seems to be that the Whitney’s show caters more to its donors and the lenders than it does to the curator’s vision. It’s a show of famous art by a famous artist.

Not that Philly’s show lacks important loans. The owner of “Good Time Charley” may have preferred to see his work at the Whitney. But Ken Griffin was happy to loan “False Start,” one of the most valuable and important Johns works, to Philadelphia. Larry Gagosian, Alexander Klabin, MoMA and many others were equally inclined to loan works to the show that fewer visitors would see. 

Johns himself is one of the wild cards among the donors. For a number of years, Johns has retained ownership of some of his more important works but put them on long-term loan to museums. Solomon explains that years ago, Leonard Lauder had tried to create a Johns mini-museum within the Whitney, but the artist had turned down the offer. He already had a similar arrangement with Philadelphia, which housed two of the painted bronze works that Johns still owned. In 2015, Johns agreed to sell one of them, the coffee-can-cum-paintbrushes work, to Henry Kravis as long as he would eventually donate the work to MoMA. 

The Savarin can full of brushes becomes the centerpiece in a room full of prints by Johns that riff on the central image. In Philadelphia, the point of the corresponding room of prints is Johns’s recombinant eye; in New York, the point comes off as less the iteration of images than it is the idolatry of the heroic work.  

Deprived of one signature work, Solomon revealed that Philadelphia was cherry-picked of the other equally famous work—the twin Ballantine ale cans—just before the retrospective. Leonard Lauder finally purchased them for the Whitney. 

Facing a raid on two of its most significant works by Johns—or any other artist, for that matter—it’s hard not to see the polished brilliance of the Philadelphia show as the museum standing up for itself. Aided by–and perhaps indebted to–New York’s billionaires, the Whitney might take the prize for the most heroic Johns artworks, but the lesser museum could still punch above its weight by putting on a more intellectually satisfying show. 

Basualdo also pulled off a small coup of his own. The Ballantine ale cans were an edition of two. He secured the second pair from the Museum Ludwig in Germany. 

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