As with the encaustic, materials and processes are crucial. Flashlight I, from 1958, is a flashlight enveloped—practically mummified—in a product called Sculpmetal. It looks as if it’s been dunked in molten lead, and somehow you sense that the real thing is in there. Disappearance II, from 1961, may be my favorite work in the show because it is one of the few times Johns has ever been this abstract. A square gray painting on canvas folded in a diamond pattern, it all but collapses in on itself. It’s being sucked into its own center. You don’t know if it’s hiding something or showing you another side of itself. Painting Bitten by a Man features a crescent taken out of its creamy surface. This painting-dentata is a joke on the headline “Man Bites Dog,” and explores the idea of art as something meant to nourish or entice. Nearby are three spectral drawings from 1962 that involve the artist smearing himself with Vaseline and charcoal, then pressing his head, hands, and body against paper. This is Johns showing his full self but also the plight of all artists who are present in but also trapped within their work. It also sets the table for a generation of artists who, like Bruce Nauman, would go on to use the body in all sorts of ways. (Speaking of which, there’s The Dutch Wives, a crosshatched painting with a small circle on one side. In his book on Johns, Michael Crichton explains that a “Dutch wife” is an old term for a wooden board with a hole in it, used by sailors as an instrument for masturbation.)
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’s 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’s 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’s 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.