Materiality and Object-based Approaches in the Work of Jasper Johns

January 2022

The 2022 Mellon-funded Penn/PMA Object-Based Workshop examined the work of Jasper Johns in detail. Taking advantage of the Philadelphia installation of the 2-part "Mind/Mirror" retrospective exhibition of Johns’ art, the group spent more than half the time in front of Johns works hanging in the galleries. The day began with a close examination of Johns’ print work in which Jonathan Katz and Amy Hughes, paper conservator at the National Gallery of Art, discussed Johns’ printmaking techniques and the iteration and reiteration of certain themes and processes across numerous individual prints. 

The group then moved into the exhibition proper and Katz explored the density of Johns’ highly material referentiality, and the inattention to this, especially with regard to notions of sexual difference, in the exhibition itself. After an extensive discussion lasting some 2 hours, the group broke for lunch, followed by discussion in which Justinne Lake-Jedzinak, The PMA’s Coordinator of Guide Training and the Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship Program addressed the training of docents and Thomas Primeau, PMA Conservator of Works of Art on Paper, addressed conservation challenges.  

Following this, the group then heard a wonderful, well-illustrated talk by Amy Hughes on the many different print techniques employed by Johns, arguably the leading living print maker. Katz then concluded the day by offering a presentation on the deployment of objects such as cutlery in Johns’ work, what they meant and how they enabled the artist to address a circle of intimates, such as his partner Robert Rauschenberg, to the exclusion of his broad public. Katz also explored Johns’ many art historical references, often figured upside down, reversed or otherwise materially camouflaged, that similarly serve a coded referential function within the artist highly personal iconography. 

First-year and second-year students in Penn’s History of Art Graduate Group participated in the event. Jonathan Katz represented Penn’s faculty on the organization and presentation team, and Nicole Cook, PMA Coordinator for Academic Partnerships, played a vital role in framing and executing the workshop.