What does it profit a man to gain the whole art world and to lose his soul? Those who see beauty in the work of Jasper Johns are confusing that quality with the deep pathos of a bitter, secretive man leaking sadness in every stroke.
The "Catenary" series, currently on view at Matthew Marks, is a gray graveyard marking a life of unrelished successes and missed opportunities to connect with the wide, wonderful world out there. If you want to know what a catenary is, look down at your balls (or labia). That uneven double arc is a catenary, like the doublet of a watch chain or uniform braid. Sad sexuality is the uniform of Jasper Johns.
Always has been: Those come-drenched flags reeking with the justifiable contempt for an America that oppressed anyone of different sexuality (a nice Duchampian play on "fags"). "Numbers," slang for gay pickups, or didn't you know that?
The insanity of Hart Crane, driven by lust to full fathom five in Jasper's Diver, or, in the current show, a repeated juxtaposition of the Milky Way (yet another cheap sexual pun á la Duche) with the poignant 1906 photograph of the family that tossed young Johns around from one member to another like a life preserver on choppy seas.
"Catenary" is sexually explicit, with lots of penises erecting and unerecting (in the three paintings on the north wall, featuring three descending arcs) and men fondling their butts while ogling others (in the gouaches on the west wall), but there is no joy of sex in Jasper's vision, just a slow, controlling torture.
Stephen Sondheim-style word games, always a Johns specialty, pop up here and there. One painting contains the block print "STUDYFORAPAINTINGJJOHNS02." Parse that one into "DIE FOR A PAINTING" or "STUD, WHY FOR A PAIN?," grim permutations of the mind of a man absorbed for a lifetime in Freud and Wittgenstein.
The back left gallery at Marks is perhaps the most beautiful, integrated series Johns has ever produced, every pink and yellow pastel wash like the songs of a troubadour lost in the forest. Johns' steady theme, like an ebbing stream, echoes Bob Dylan: "Life is sad, life is a bust, all you can do is do what you must, and you do it well."
But Jasper, here's a little secret, before it's too late: There's more, a lot more to be had, in life and art, than what you've given us and what you've taken.
Jasper Johns, "Catenary," May 7-June 25, 2005, at Matthew Marks Gallery, 523 West 24th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).