Jasper Johns shining at San Francisco MOMA

Courtesy PhotoIconic: “Flags

Jasper Johns made his mark nearly 60 years ago, transforming the art world with his distinctive style. Now 82, the contemporary American artist is still painting and reinventing his work as he goes.

“Jasper Johns: Seeing with the Mind’s Eye” is at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through Feb. 3. The exhibition surveys the artist’s long and productive career, showcasing some 90 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints. It includes works from public and private collections in the Bay Area as well as paintings loaned by the artist. One of them, “Bushbaby” (2005), is being displayed publicly for the first time.

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“I am interested in the idea of sight … in how we see and why we see the way we do,” Johns says.

His painting style in the 1950s helped shift American art away from abstract expressionism, paving the way to pop art and minimalism. The exhibition opens with early works, including his numbers paintings.

Focusing on the numerals zero through nine, Johns explores them in black and white, and again in color. Although the artist’s best-known image is of the American flag, he has painted more variations on numbers than on anything else.

“Sometimes I see it and then paint it,” Johns says of his work. “Other times I paint it and then see it. Both are impure situations, and I prefer neither.”

Highlights of the exhibition include “Highway,” a painting inspired by the first time the artist drove a car at night. Painted in vibrant yellows, reds, oranges and blues, it’s not hard to make the leap to stoplights and taillights.

Nearby are two paintings that are nearly identical in their composition: “Land’s End” and “Periscope.” They are a visual commentary on the life of Hart Crane, a gay American poet who committed suicide by jumping off a cruise ship in 1932.

The show also includes some of the artist’s early sculptures based on everyday objects, such as “Light Bulb II.”

There are also works from his Crosshatch series, in which he uses brightly colored brush strokes grouped together, like rows of sticks pointed at various angles.

The exhibition — the first major Bay Area museum show of Johns’ work in 35 years — was organized by Gary Garrels, the museum’s Elise S. Haas senior curator of painting and sculpture, in cooperation
 with Johns.

“In reviewing Johns’ career, what becomes evident at every stage is the endless curiosity and discipline of the artist, and the astonishing level of ambition and quality of the work,” Garrels says. “His art and thinking continually inspire other artists.”

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