MuseumsWeekend

Jasper Johns’s Reinvention of an Old and Familiar Subject

by John Yau on March 23, 2014

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Jasper Johns, “Regrets” (2013), oil on canvas, 50 × 72 in (© Jasper Johns / licensed by VAGA, New York, NY) (photo by Jerry Thompson)

One wants one’s work to be the world, but of course it’s never the world. The work is in the world; it never contains the whole thing.

—Jasper Johns

Regrets — the collective title of Jasper Johns’s most recent series of paintings, drawings, and prints — is currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (March 15–September 1, 2014). The inspiration for the series was a ripped, crumpled, and stained photograph of Lucian Freud perched on the edge of an iron bed, one leg tucked under the other, with his hand clutching his hair as he looks down and away. John Deakin took the photograph, which was commissioned by Francis Bacon, around 1964. Johns first saw the distressed photograph in the Christie’s catalogue announcing the auction of Bacon’s triptych, Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969).

On November 12, 2013, Three Studies of Lucian Freud went to the highest bidder for 142.4 million, “making it,” as Carol Vogel reported in the New York Times, “the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction.” Johns, it should be noted, saw the photograph as long as a year before the auction took place, as the date of “Study for Regrets” (2012) indicates. The photograph that caught his attention is reproduced on page 119, along with eight similar photographs in a square grid of three rows of three. The single large image of Freud on the opposite page also came from the same roll of black-and-white film.

As source materials for Bacon’s triptych, the photographs ended up torn, creased and stained, some more than others, so that they are more damaged things than they are images. Of the ten Deakin photographs reproduced in the catalogue’s two-page spread, the only one that doesn’t show Freud’s face is the one that caught Johns’s attention. The pose suggests that the sitter is agitated, as if he is refusing to see or think about something; that he is in an introspective frame of mind and wants not to be seen; or that he feels exposed, instinctively withdrawing from the camera’s attention.

A used or damaged thing — in this case, a ripped, folded and marked photograph — transformed through a variety of means into a work of art has long been central to Johns’s approach, in part because we all live inside of time and cannot escape its pressures or consequences. This what Deakin’s reference photograph of Freud shares with the other marred sources that have inspired Johns throughout his career, from a Savarin can crammed with dirty paintbrushes to Hans Holbein’s faded and torn watercolor, “Portrait of a Young Nobleman Holding a Lemur” (1541–42): all of them exist in what I have called elsewhere, “between the after and the before.”

In his work, Johns recognizes that we are all caught in time, between what we have experienced and what we have not, as the open ale can paired with the dented closed one in “Painted Bronze” (Ale Cans) (1960), suggests. His understanding of reality — the body pulled along by time — emphasizes materiality over image as it underscores that origin and destiny are beyond our ken. However, there is a crucial difference between Deakin’s damaged photograph of Freud and the other figural sources that Johns began incorporating into his work in the early 1980s: Picasso’s “Straw Hat with Blue Leaf [Woman in Straw Hat]” (1936); a Rubin’s profile/vase; and an optically ambiguous head derived from “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law” by British cartoonist W. E. Hill, a drawing that flips visually between a young woman’s and old woman’s profile.

In contrast to these figures, which are looking outward, facing each other or turning back and forth, the man perched on the bed is looking away, with his hand clutching the hair on the crown of his head. By incorporating this figure into his work, Johns expands his lexicon of images in which the activity of looking or, in this case, looking away is central.

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Jasper Johns, “Study for Regrets” (2012), acrylic, photocopy collage, colored pencil, ink and watercolor on paper, 11 3/8 × 17 3/4 in (© Jasper Johns / licensed by VAGA, New York, NY) (photo by Jerry Thompson)

For “Study for Regrets” (2012), the first work in the series, Johns made a tracing of the photograph, which turned its details, stains, creases and missing sections into jigsaw puzzle-like sections ranging from large, irregular and jagged to small, geometric and rounded. He then filled in each section with colored pencil, using a palette based on primary and secondary colors, and mounted the colored pencil drawing on the right side of a larger sheet of paper. On the left, he used watercolor to paint its mirror image in shades of gray with some areas in gray-blue and dark red. In the upper right hand corner, he added a rubber signature stamp that he designed some years earlier, which states succinctly in the artist’s rounded script: “Regrets, Jasper Johns.”

The rubber stamp signature and the mirroring are further fabrications that Johns adds to something he has already fabricated through tracing, sectioning and colored pencil. It is through this and other elaborate set-ups that he endeavors to reconstruct his initial perception of the photograph.

This desire to reconstruct the initial perception to reveal how something is being seen rather than what is being seen becomes evident when we examine two other drawings, both titled untitled and dated 2012. In these works, Johns focuses on the figure perched on the bed, but in the lower right hand corner of one drawing he has written “Goya? Bats? Dreams?” and in the lower right hand corner of the other drawing he has written “Lucian Freud.”

The implications seem clear. Johns recognizes that Freud’s pose in one drawing brings to mind the loaded cultural associations related to the man slumped over his desk in Goya’s etching, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” (c. 1799). In the other untitled drawing I have the sense that Johns felt the original subject was too present in the work, and that his treatment of the image had not opened up enough of a space between Lucian Freud and the anonymous figure seated on a bed. It seems to me that it is only of secondary interest to Johns that the photograph is of the highly regarded English painter, Lucian Freud.

What these three modestly scaled works convey is Johns’s longstanding commitment to experimentation and process, which he believes will lead him somewhere unexpected, revealing something that he hadn’t planned on. His devotion is as unwavering as it is unfashionable, as many artists eschew process and experimentation for ideological reasons, or for the conventional postmodern belief that, in a post-studio situation, process and experimentation are beside the point, particularly since what is most important is the final product.

While critics are apt to invoke Johns’s well-known statement, “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it. Do something else to it, etc,” they rarely mention the emphasis this dictum places on a commitment to process and experimentation, a willingness to try different methods and to embrace the necessary and accidental. Rather than establishing and plotting a strategy to arrive there, he dedicates himself to discovering where his recombinations of materials and methods might take him.

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Jasper Johns, “Untitled” (2013), ink on plastic, 27 1/2 × 36 in (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, promised gift from a private collection) (© Jasper Johns / licensed by VAGA, New York, NY) (photo by Jerry Thompson) (click to enlarge)

In “Untitled” (2013), done in pencil and acrylic, Johns returns to the mirror image of the two men. Facing each other with their heads down, their attention turned elsewhere, they remain disconnected from the skull-like form discernible in the center foreground of the space between, arising out of the creases in the paper and resting on a monolithic shape derived from a tear in the original photograph. Here, the figures looking away gain further traction; they are averting their eyes from a skull, a sign of death and mortality.

For me, this is the first inkling that Johns is on the brink of reinventing the subject of Memento Mori, which in Latin means “remember that you will die.” There are innumerable paintings, drawings and prints in the history of art of a man or woman holding, touching, or accompanied by a skull, including Albrecht Durer’s “Saint Jerome” (1521), Franz Hals’s “Portrait of a Man Holding a Skull” (1615), Georges de la Tour’s “Penitent Magdalen” (1640) and Hans Holbein’s astonishing “The Ambassadors” (1533), in which the skull is rendered in anamorphic perspective. None of the subjects are clutching their hair, much less looking away.

If, as many postmodernist theorists assert, there is nothing new under the sun, it seems to me that on a simple level an artist has two choices: make a point of doing what has already been done or attempt to make familiar and even cliché subjects and themes new. This is how we ought to consider what Johns has done since early 1980s. Although he is widely regarded as the artist who helped shift attention away from the Abstract Expressionists, along with paving the way for Pop Art and Minimalism, it is likely that he would agree with a statement Willem de Kooning first read to a small group of artists and friends in 1949: “Style is a fraud. I always felt the Greeks were hiding behind their columns.” This is the dilemma that Johns has had to face for decades: how to resist all the identities that we have thrust upon him in order go his own way. How not to become what his admirers say of him, as so many others before and after him have done?

In his four untitled ink on plastic drawings (all dated 2013), Johns investigates the relationship between the figure and its surroundings (the bed, the bars at of the metal headboard, the floor littered with newspapers), as well as the original photo’s creases, folds, tears and missing sections. Typically, Johns’ ink on plastic drawings combine sharp, clear lines with areas of wash, so that drawing consists of inseparable yet distinct mosaic-like sections ranging from black to pale gray. Literally, the drawings are made of dried pools of ink in which traces of particulate pigments are sometimes visible.

Our experience of looking at the drawings fuses the figures and their attendant details with the jigsaw puzzle-like passages made of ink stains and dust. Other than the pronounced vertical and horizontal railings of the metal headboard, the drawing seems to hover in a state of disintegration; the multi-sectioned figures are both coming apart and coming together. On the cusp of merging with their surroundings, they seem to be pondering their own crumbling existence, even as they look away from the skull.

Speaking about his use of ink on plastic in a 1989 interview, Johns stated: “it is difficult to tell from the finished drawing what gestures were used to produce it.” He also noted that “it removes itself from my touch.” By blurring the boundary between natural and fabricated processes, between what the wayward pools of ink and the control he is able to exert over the line, Johns conveys the simultaneity of creation, change, and disintegration, asserting that art does not stand outside of time.

So the title of the work, “Regrets” which is stamped in the upper right hand corner, comes to mean a multitude of possibilities. First, there is the artificiality of the signature; it is a reproduction and therefore not authentic. But is authenticity a guarantor of the truth of any kind? Second, by adding the stamped signature to the work, might it not be read as the artist’s admission that he will regret looking away, that he must remain attentive to time passing, no matter difficult the consciousness of it might be? Third, if we believe that the work is autobiographical, might not the figure’s hidden face (which is based on the portrait of a painter) function as a mask behind which the artist can continue to be true to himself without having to accommodate the many identities, both aesthetic and social, we have projected upon him?

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Jasper Johns, “Regrets” (2013), oil on canvas, 67 × 96 in (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, promised gift of Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis) (© Jasper Johns / licensed by VAGA, New York, NY) (photo by Jerry Thompson)

The series culminates in two paintings, both titled “Regrets” (both 2013). The ink on plastic drawings suggest the scale and composition of the paintings, though Johns had no idea how they would look. In one painting, he seems to have filled in the sectioned composition with pale blues, pinks, and yellows. He subsequently painted over this with various tonalities of gray, from steely blue gray to blue to gray-black around the cranial semi-circle in the center. Is the figure hiding his face after or before seeing the skull looming beside him, at once solid and an apparition?

In the other painting, where the skull seems more prominent, Johns uses grays mixed with soft blues, mauves, greens, violets and browns to subtly distinguish the sections. In the upper right hand corner, a horizontal brushstrokes slants slightly down from the painting’s right edge, partially obliterating the “s” in the painting’s title and the artist’s signature, leaving the word “Regret” above the remains of Johns’ name. Is this fragmentation, the thing that the artist regrets? The figures in the painting have turned away, but it was Johns who added the last strokes of paint, obscuring the title and his name. In the end, is this Johns’s way of asserting a modicum of control over the inevitable, prefiguring the eventual destruction of time? Meanwhile, the skull, which is staring out of the interlocking sections seems to be wearing wraparound sunglasses. Death can see us but we cannot see it. Might this too be a “regret?”

Jasper Johns: Regrets continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through September 1.

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