Let There Be Light (Bulbs)

In the spirit of Marcel Duchamp and his “ready-mades,” Jasper Johns looked at everyday objects – the American flag, targets, numbers, an all-white canvas – in a new way. In Jasper Johns: Light Bulb, the Princeton University Art Museum explores the common object that would come to dominate Johns’s limited sculptural output and become a recurring motif in his prints and drawings for the next 20 years.

In the 1950s and ’60s, when Johns created these prints and sculptures, the light bulb may have been much more of a common object than it is today – or so Stephanie Hanor, senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, who organized this show, came to find out during a recent visit to Princeton for the opening and to give a number of talks.

When speaking to students, she learned that the image most conjure for light bulb are the squiggly compact fluorescent tubes in their dormitories. “What was so ubiquitous 50 years ago may not exist in 20 years,” she remarked. Ms. Hanor uses the light bulb to trace Johns’s career as a printmaker and painter. “He’s an innovator of material and technique… He was always thinking back and forth between 2- and 3-D. Most artists make sketches and drawings to figure out composition and then sculpt, but he does it the other way around.”

Some of the gray metallic sculptures of light bulbs in the Art Museum were made from Sculpt-metal, a hobbyist material from the 1950s. “It’s interesting that he chose such a common material,” says Ms. Hanor. “Anyone could go into a store and buy it and make a bronze – you didn’t need a fabricator.” Would-be sculptors, take note: Sculpt-metal was found to be highly carcinogenic and is no longer made. Johns, however, continues to be productive well into his upper 70s.

All the works in this exhibit are titled “Light Bulb.” Explaining his serial use of the bulb, Ms. Hanor says, “It is all about making you look, making you spend more time with something so common.”

Pictured here is a working proof (1976) of “Light Bulb,” with chalk additions, from the collection of the artist – it is the only one that uses color. “None of the bulbs emit light, but here he indicates rays of light coming through the piece,” says Ms. Hanor. He made an “X” over the print, referring to the “X” on a plate at the end of the print run, and also because it was the last light bulb he made.

The septuagenarian lives in a remodeled farm house in Sharon, Conn., where he has turned the old stables into his printing and painting studios (he has a winter home in Antigua). The exhibit can be seen through Jan. 4, 2009. The Arts Council of Princeton will offer a panel discussion Oct. 31, 5 p.m., Interdisciplinary Alchemy at and after Black Mountain, about the interrelationships between artists and visionaries John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Jasper Johns, all alumni of Black Mountain College.

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