The last room of “Gray” shows you how much of a beginner Johns is willing to be as he attains a great late style. Unlike many famous artists, who switch on the autopilot and go into solipsistic production, Johns about ten years ago emptied out his work. Virtually everything disappeared. He began an oft-disparaged series known as the Catenary Paintings. In each of these large works, he suspended one or more strings from one edge of a mostly gray canvas to the other — they’re like pendants hung against flesh. Sometimes the surface displays smaller pictures of the Little Dipper, the Milky Way or a fading harlequin pattern. The Little Dipper may have the North Star at its base, but there’s little to navigate these works. You’re left with what’s been there from the beginning, the resonant physicality of Johns’ art. The catenary paintings break free of the constraints of language. In a sense you’re left in the skin of the artist, literally holding on to these works by a string. For Johns’ painting has always been something more than just for looking. The Catenary Paintings seem to be about getting from one side to the other as naturally as possible.
Johns’ body and self have always been deeply embedded in his art, and that has deepened here. He has never been as cagey or removed as many have claimed. “Gray” is a powerful show because it allows you to see just how visceral, voluptuous and vulnerable he’s been all along.
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