The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ current exhibit is titled Jasper Johns and Edvard Munch: Love, Loss and the Cycle of Life. It was shown once at the Munch Museum in Oslo and is now on display at the VMFA for its only U.S. exhibition. The exhibit runs through February 20th. I recently sat down to discuss the show with Deborah Solomon, author and art critic for WNYC in New York, who is currently writing Jasper Johns’ biography.
Craig Carper: Deborah, it’s a pleasure to have you with us. What were your thoughts on the exhibit?
Deborah Solomon: I love this show. It pairs two artists who might seem completely unrelated. If you follow art, you certainly know both names, you know the name Jasper Johns, an American artist who was best known for painting the flag and targets in the late 50s and 60s, and helping to inaugurate the pop art movement, and, this show pairs him with Edvard Munch, a Norwegian, proto-expressionist, who died in 1944. The two men never met, they have no reason to know one another, but it’s really a show about art DNA, and how Munch’s DNA influenced Johns, and about the family of art and how artists borrow from one another and learn from one another and are always speaking to one another through their work. And Munch, you know, he’s one of the great depressives in art. He painted The Scream, everyone knows The Scream, of course, that guy who puts his hands on his face and is screaming in anguish.
Carper: The inspiration for Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone.
Solomon: Exactly, as well as a century of expressionist art--art at its darkest. He’s about as dark, in terms of subject matter, as an artist could get.
Carper: So, what’s the common thread?
Solomon: I think curator John Ravenal has done a brilliant job of illuminating what is a very scholarly and difficult subject. In some instances, you do see an example of Munch’s work appropriated by Johns, but very rarely. For instance, in one print that Munch did, it was a self-portrait of himself, he included a skeleton of an arm at the bottom of the image. So, he’s clearly thinking about death and what his body is going to become after it no longer exists. You see his face, you see his chest, you see the skeleton of an arm. And Johns, in certain of his works, includes that arm. You see it at the bottom of a print of a coffee can. Now, what’s interesting about this show is, there are no flags or targets in this show. We’re not looking at Johns’ iconic images, we’re looking at his later work, and as it turns out, the later work does have a strong expressionist component to it, and that is brought out by seeing him juxtaposed with Edvard Munch.
The museum happens to own one painting by Jasper Johns, called Between the Clock and the Bed, and I think it has always raised the question, why did Johns title this painting, Between the Clock and the Bed, after a late Edvard Munch self-portrait. And I--
Solomon: Exactly. That is the way into the show. And once you think about that and start looking at more of Johns’s work, and more of Munch’s work, you start to see more relationships.
Carper: It sounds like it’s not an introductory show for either of these two artists.
Solomon: Well put, it’s not a survey of either artist’s career, certainly. Many of the works by Johns and Munch consist of prints. They were both great printmakers, and they loved printmaking, because it allowed them to stay with certain themes over the course of their career, and experiment with variations on a theme. And Munch was really a pioneer in terms of his willingness to experiment using the same image over and over again, and even The Scream itself exists in many different forms. Here we do not have one of the paintings, I believe there are three Scream paintings, we have a lithograph. You see Johns experiment with this show with one image that recurs again and again. It might sound banal at first, it’s just a coffee can with some paint brushes in it, so obviously it refers to the tools of his trade. It’s something he would see in his studio every day.
Carper: So what’s the significance of the coffee can? Why was this such a repetitive theme in his art?
Solomon: It’s a Savarin can. Remember Savarin coffee? And the word Savarin, it’s almost an anagram of the word variation. I kept seeing v-a-r-i as I looked at all these Savarin cans, and I thought, variation. It just jumps off the can. And that was, in many ways, Johns’ goal, to try varying the image from one print to the next, in small but very beautiful ways. For me, it’s one of the most radical shows that I’ve ever seen, because, I think it shows how artists who you may not associate with one another can borrow from one another, and the way artists are always talking to the past, even the most contemporary artists, even the most radical artists, and Johns was seen as a great iconoclast, but he’s somebody who draws heavily from the art that he loved, and I think that’s a very profound message: that artists who we think are breaking all tradition, who we think of as rebels, and people smashing the past, are often the ones who are most in love with the past, and you will get out of the show what you put into it. It’s completely beautiful, if you don’t care about the relationship between Munch and Johns, you will still love the show because there’s really major work here.
Carper: Deborah Solomon, art critic for WNYC, and author of a forthcoming book on Jasper Johns, thank you so much for joining us.
Solomon:Thank you, Craig.
Carper: The exhibit again is titled Jasper Johns and Edvard Munch: Love, Loss, and the Cycle of Life. It runs at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts through February 20th. For WCVE News, I’m Craig Carper.