Words and images are set to collide at the Wichita Art Museum with the opening of an exhibition showcasing the divergent talents of two 20th-century American art pioneers, Robert Motherwell and Jasper Johns.
“Poetic Works as Metaphor” centers on the collaborative efforts between the artists and poets who shared their creative visions. The show is a bold, contrasting pairing that aims to fashion an awareness of language while unearthing the complexities of the human mind. By uniting visual art with literary work, the subconscious elements in the images of both artists are augmented.
Stephen Gleissner, the museum’s chief curator, booked the exhibit years ago and noted that this will be one of only two showings of it this year. He said the procurement is a win for the museum and the community.
“This is an interesting show in part because of their differences,” Gleissner said. “Motherwell was one of the kings of abstract expressionism, and Johns was one of the major art world figures to lead away from abstract expressionism and return to the object. A lot of people say he’s the founder of pop art. It’s an easy label, but I don’t think it’s accurate. (Andy) Warhol’s tongue-in-cheek attitude toward art is in huge contrast to Johns’ very ultra-serious nature.”
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The show itself includes 19 Motherwell lithographs made between 1980 and 1983 that correlate with the poem “El Negro Motherwell” by famed Spanish poet Rafael Alberti. Bold strokes, black paints, strong colors and spiraling shapes illustrate a complex and commanding series of canvasses. The works are a thank you by Motherwell for Alberti’s having produced and read aloud the tribute poem during an exhibition in Spain. Both were on the forefront of Spanish anti-fascism efforts, from which they formed a bond of mutual respect and admiration.
Complementing their emotive, surrealist approach is the more ambiguous, guarded pairing of 31 Johns prints produced in 1976. These were published with a series of five essays written by Samuel Beckett, the Irish-born poet and novelist whose writings often center on the bleakness of human nature. The works are more patterned by nature, deliberate and precise, yet never intrinsically revealing. Some are dark and gray, while others dance with color.
“With Johns, you definitely see the intellectual love of playing with imagery that defies definition,” Gleissner said. “He gives, in a sense, almost objecthood to the mark. He lets his work take its own course. It’s a subconscious approach to imagery versus a more intellectually playful one.”
The ambiguity of meaning is common to both Beckett’s writing and Johns’ art.
“It’s funny because that’s in major contrast to Motherwell, who was one of the most intellectual and vocal artists of the 20th century,” Gleissner said.
The themes of this exhibit include the relationship of image to word, the role of the subconscious and self-proclaimed identity versus self-evasion.
“They do both complement and contrast each other quite well. Both artists are consciously making these prints in relation to a literary work, which is unusual for them,” Gleissner said. “The element of the subconscious is very active in both the artists’ and the writers’ work, but in completely different ways. With Motherwell and Alberti, it’s the subconscious being the vehicle for freedom of expression, and that’s both artistic and political. Beckett and Johns, who were in a sense both anti-meaning, never reveal much about what one should take away from a given work.”
Viewers wanting to unearth their own subconscious artistic leanings will have a chance later this month to discover whether they are more like Motherwell or Johns during a Final Friday soiree at the museum. Two large interactive panels will allow visitors to mark on them in the style of the respective artist. It’s an offering the museum hopes will underscore the central themes of the exhibit.
“One of the things I like to do with contemporary exhibitions is introduce the community to artists that aren’t able to be experienced in the permanent collection,” Gleissner said. “I think most people will appreciate the chance to see the kind of art they don’t often see in Wichita.”