If Shepard hadn’t mentioned going to see an exhibition called Past Things and Present: Jasper Johns since 1983 at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, I would never have made a connection between these two artists. Once made, though, the connection has considerable resonance. Both are quintessentially American artists who are peculiarly insistent in their use of recurring images. Shepard’s play The Late Henry Moss is practically a catalogue of visual elements recycled from previous works: the bathtub from Chicago, the refrigerator from Curse of the Starving Class, the barred window reminiscent of a prison cell from When the World Was Green, the comic business of carrying a full bowl of soup across the stage from States of Shock, the pair of brothers from nearly every Shepard play (most notably True West), the fish from Action, the apparently dead body onstage at the top of Buried Child (a reference, Shepard admits, to Playboy of the Western World). Johns, most famous for his flags and targets, has moved on in recent years to new repeating images, some of them traced from other art works. The show at the Walker focuses in great detail on the recurrence of the artist’s own shadow in a series called The Seasons, a somewhat cryptic figure known as “the Green Angel,” and various depictions of a catenary, an engineering term denoting the curve formed by a flexible cord that hangs freely from two fixed points.

As Joan Rothfuss, who curated the exhibition, writes in her introduction to the show’s catalog, “The quotation or appropriation of motifs – as opposed to their invention – is a strategy Johns has long used, in part to help him hide his ‘personality, psychological state, and emotions’ by removing his imagination from the artistic equation… Beginning in the early 1980s [Johns shifted] toward a more openly autobiographical and personally expressive iconography. John himself acknowledged the shift in a 1984 interview when he admitted that ‘in my early work I tried to hide my personality, my psychological state, my emotions…but eventually it seemed like a losing battle. Finally, one must simply drop the reserve. I think some of the changes in my work relate to that.’” That could almost be Shepard talking.

Other sidebars:
Shepard and film
Shepard and Wallace Shawn
Shepard and Gurdjieff

American Theatre, April 2004