SAN DIEGO — When Jasper Johns first started painting in the 1950s, his subjects--targets, flags, letters and numbers--were so familiar that they were, in a way, hard to see. By recasting obvious cultural symbols in an unexpected guise--painted on canvas, with loaded, gestural brush strokes--Johns posed a litany of questions about sight, perception and knowledge. The friction of those three forces charged his work with its own peculiar energy.
Now Johns' work itself is so familiar that it has attained the status of a cultural icon. And it, too, has become difficult to see afresh, with regard to surface and meaning.
The San Diego Museum of Art's new exhibition, "The Seasons: Prints and Related Works," helps out generously by providing a tight focus on technique without neglecting the symbolic import of Johns' imagery.
Johns' series of prints on the theme of the four seasons is traced here from its inception as a single frontispiece for a book of Wallace Stevens poems in 1985 to a complex group of works from 1990, incorporating much of the previous five years' imagery. Many of the prints are shown in several states, in which Johns has made use of a veritable encyclopedia of printmaking techniques, including the processes of aquatint, lithography, dry point, etching and photogravure. The four basic images of the seasons evolve in individual prints through as many as 17 states, then are strung together as one horizontal image, aligned in a grid and, finally, reconfigured in the shape of a cross.
A handy visual glossary at the entrance to the show explains many of the prints' recurring motifs, a task also ably done by the accompanying catalogue, produced by Brooke Alexander Editions in New York, co-organizer of the show with Malcolm Warner, San Diego Museum of Art's curator of prints and drawings. It is a small exhibition, about 50 prints, almost all from Johns' collection.
The show is also a dense one, much like Johns' work, due to the repetition of so many of the images with only slight variations in composition or texture. The show calls for a slow, scrutinizing pace and an attentive eye.
Repetition is key to Johns' prints, too. The artist, now in his 60s, continuously recycles his own work, planting fragments from previous paintings in current prints and vice versa, pressing the images together into a compact mass, then scrambling them up again to form new patterns and relationships.
Between Johns' method of working and the perceptual puzzles he poses, his work sometimes takes on the quality of a hall of mirrors: It reflects itself, reflecting itself, reflecting . . . but is fascinating, if a bit self-indulgent.
Johns' '80s work is especially self-reflexive. Every detail in the "Seasons" prints (which relate to paintings of the same theme) refers to an incident, place, influence or work from his own life. His own shadow appears in every print, a silhouette against the brick wall of one of his studios or the wood flooring of another. An image of a ladder with a rope twisted around it recurs as well, a quote from a 1936 Picasso painting showing a minotaur carting away his belongings.
Several of Johns' other borrowings--of the "Mona Lisa," for instance, or an altarpiece fragment by Grunewald--peek out here and there. A circle, square and triangle recall Cezanne's statement about reducing the forms in nature to basic geometric elements. There are specific seasonal references: a small, linear snowman in "Winter," streaks of rain in "Spring," and in each print, a small, arching branch with blossoms ("Spring"), leaves ("Summer"), or no growth at all ("Winter").
Not a single element in these prints is gratuitous, but the significance of many of the references may be lost on viewers without detailed knowledge of Johns' life. Critics and historians have exhumed much meaning from this work, and some have taken great pleasure tracking down the sources of Johns' more mysterious crosshatched forms.
The use of obscure imagery is an about-face from Johns' earlier strategy of using easily recognizable symbols. Yet the earlier and more recent work operate on the surface and deep below it. There is little middle ground.
The top layer is always a pleasure. They are texturally rich and impeccably composed, with just enough visual tension to energize the repeated forms. This energy reaches its peak in the 1990 print incorporating all four seasonal images into a single, cross-shaped form. Centrifugal force seems to drive the images around, suggestive of the Earth's rotation or the revolution of the planets--all notions resonant with the theme of seasonal, cyclical renewal.
The perceptual riggings that support this outer layer are less accessible. Identifying Johns' references and decoding his symbols may be satisfying projects for the mind, but they tend to neglect the needs of the heart.
Though Johns' work from the 1980s is intensely autobiographical, it is never intimate. It remains a cool, intellectual enterprise, formally vibrant but emotionally flat. If Johns intended the "Seasons" prints to reflect on his own life transitions or the rhythmic course of his own career, his dispassionate tone is all the more disappointing.
* Jasper Johns' "The Seasons: Prints and Related Works" at the San Diego Museum of Art through Aug . 9. Museum hours are Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Information: (619) 232-7931 .