Jasper Johns’s arrival on the New York scene, from South Carolina in 1952, was propitious. The post-war city, newly thrust onto the world stage as a powerful economic and influential cultural force, had attracted numerous artists, poets and writers determined to redefine art in a new, more muscular light than their pre-war European predecessors. This new talent consisted of people like Larry Rivers, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Philip Guston, Alex Katz, Lee Krasner, Cleas Oldenberg, Joe Brainard, Frank Lima, William and Elaine de Kooning, Alice Neel, Fairfield Porter, Franz Kline, Michael Goldberg, Mark Rothko, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank O’Hara and Robert Motherwell, to name a few. All knew each other well and were instrumental in helping define the New York cultural scene. From this extraordinary pool of creative talent flowed works that would define the earliest phases of the contemporary American art movement: Abstract Expressionism, Color Field painting, avant-garde poetry and reflexive experiments in writing and image-making. Collectively, this whirlwind of expressive energy and influence came to be known as the New York School.
Above, left: Jasper Johns, Cicada, 1979. Screenprint from sixteen screens on Kurotani Hosho paper. Fogg Museum, Loan from Collection Jean Christophe Castelli, Class of 1985, 32.1999.artes fine arts magazine
In 1957, Jasper Johns met one of the central figures of the New York School, poet and art activist, Frank O’Hara. O’Hara’s fragmented and discordant, Naturalistic poetic style appealed to Johns’s way of working as an artist. One critic of the time noted that Johns’s “ambition was to present reality not as more integrally complete, but as fragmented and discontinuous. His patient accumulation of everyday signs and objects can be compared to O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” aesthetic, although Johns’s attention is given more to objects than to personalities:
Take an object
Do something to it
Do something else to it.
Given this approach to the everyday world, Johns saw things in terms of juxtapositions and relationships that passed through his own sensibility. “I tend to focus upon a relationship between myself and a thing that is flexible—that it can be one thing at one time and something else at another time. ”This underlying theme of fragmentation-made-whole, embodied in Johns’s writing in the late `50s and early `60s resonate strongly in the current Sackler exhibition, where the appropriation and transformation of the familiar to create illusory and highly symbolic representations of the familiar serve as a foundational element in the works chosen for display.
In 1975, Johns produced a modestly-proportioned diptych, The Dutch Wives, which would serve as a central defining work for much of his artistic effort during that decade, The subtle gradations of crosshatched grays and ochre, applied encaustic over strips of newspaper text, could easily be dismissed as yet another exercise in Johns’s penchant for textural experimentation (his submerged, repetitive culturally-iconographic American flag paintings had earned him fame by this time).
The importance of this work, in the permanent collection of Harvard Art Museums is currently being examined in a student-mounted show, Jasper Johns in Press: The Crosshatch Work and the Logic of Press, through August 18, 2012. Not to be dismissed as mere academic exercise, this exhibit sheds important new light on the artist’s oeuvre and his particular interest in the craft of printing, its role in a mass media society and the impact of ‘replicatability’ in the work of the artist.
Conceived as a study project in Harvard’s History of Art and Architecture program, with The Dutch Wives (1975, on long-term loan from the artist’s collection) as a starting point—like concentric rings after a stone is dropped into a pond—examination of other, related works in the museum collection were soon being considered. Under the direction of faculty member and show curator, Jennifer Roberts, with assistance from Susan Dackmann, Curator of Prints, Johns’s work was examined from the perspective of his interest in the act of printing, itself; and particularly in the elaborate exercise of template preparation and printing—where replication becomes the essential concern for all those involved in the process.
Jasper Johns may be best known for a series of earlier works, begun in 1955, with his American flag and Target series. The volubility of these seemingly benign works was intended to speak to the nation’s Cold War period, as well as to the tangential societal role that he, as a homosexual—and others like him—had been relegated.
It was in the context of these familiar acculturated symbols that Johns, a relatively new arrival on the New York art scene from South Carolina in the early `50s, chose to work. Rejecting the predominant styles of Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting, Johns sought to reinterpret ‘the familiar’ in ways that would define his creative ambitions in the context of recognizable signs and symbols of the time; and through manipulation of texture and color, reappropriate their meaning in the process. As historian Robert Hughes, in American Visions (1997) notes, “Other artists would include the flag in their work in a spirit of protest or provocation Johns never did; his flags had a beautiful and troubling muteness…it is static, stretched, rigid and completely iconic. [It was] articulated in the impasto of encaustic pigment over a ground of glued-on newspaper, some of whose print (its words meaningless to the image, as they were not in Cubist collage) shows through” .
So, even Johns earliest work employed newsprint as an under-layer to the final composition. With his ‘Flags’ compositions, paint was intended to mask and neutralize the narrative significance of the text, rendering the sometimes heated Cold War diatribe to the status of an obscure informational backdrop for the symbolically-charged message of flag and country.
Thus, Johns was, even then, factoring the printed word into some of his earliest works. By the `70s, his focus on the use of newspaper collage, and its material, temporal and political implications, was being significantly factored into his work. Johns’s crosshatch imagery brings to the fore, the artist’s metaphorical interest in exploring the historic role of printing as a means of communication and creative expression.
Hash marks have long been a technique for depicting shadows or three-dimensional modeling in a two-dimensional plane. The method involves rendering series of close parallel lines with pen, pencil or stylus to denote areas of shapes facing away from the light source in the work. A trope as old as print making, itself, hatching was commonly found in hand-rendered newspaper images, well into the 20th century. It is, even today, a standard method for artists etchings or line drawings (consider David Levine, or Al Hirschfeld, both famous, now deceased, caricaturists). Johns both celebrates and examines this method of printing in his 1970s work and Harvard’s collection is brilliantly curated to illuminate the technical medium and the message behind his crosshatch works.
In the seminal work for this exhibition, Curator Jennifer Roberts notes, “in The Dutch Wives, the hatches evoke the patterns of parallel lines used in graphic traditions [while] the newsprint collage, partially obscured by the encaustic, imports printed artifacts directly into the painting, raising questions about the production, organization and retention of information disseminated through mass production. The two panels imperfectly replicate each other—even the collaged newspaper strips come from double copies of the same New York Times issue—thus evoking questions or repetition and difference that are native to reproductive media. The gray scheme recalls the evacuation of color in much reproductive printing. The title, The Dutch Wives, derives from a slang term denoting a prostitute or sex doll, thus evoking issues of sexuality and substitution.”
In Corpse and Mirror (1976), Johns presents a monochromatic exercise in reversal. The right half of the work mirrors the left, subtly differentiated by the preservation of flaws and fading that might occur during the inking process in a press run. Here, the image that might have been rejected by the printmaker is cleverly incorporated into the finished image, vaguely defined by a ‘gutter’ running down the center of the work. Johns wants the viewer to understand ‘how the sausage is made’ in a print run, and by incorporating his success, along with a ‘failure, he produces an image that achieves character and strength by virtue of its flaws.
In Scent (1976), Johns once again uses crosshatching to build his visual narrative. Appearing deceptively straight-forward, the image is, in fact, an exercise in printmaking complexity and technical exactitude. Comprised of three mediums—lithograph linocut and woodcut—each vertical panel compromises the total image. Examined carefully, the final product reveals that the apparently random pattern is structured to allow for the flat image to be rolled into a cylinder. Here, two-dimensional designs can take on three-dimensional proportions, “calling to mind the serial nature of the printing process [and] the widespread use of rollers and revolving cylinders in various aspects of the printing process,” says student curator, Jennifer Quick.
Above: Scent, 1976. Lithograph, linocut, and woodcut from four aluminum plates, four linoleum blocks, and four woodblocks on Twinrocker paper. Fogg Museum, Special Purchase Fund, M19954
In 1977, in an interview with David Bourdon, Johns explains that he “chose the title Scent to capture the visual difficulty of perceiving the structure of the print: ‘I just thought it would be like an odor…I thought there would be something that couldn’t be identified but would be sensed in a certain way.’”
In one of the most unusual and arresting works in the exhibition, Skin with O’Hara Poem (1965), Johns pays his debt to the love of the print with his own body. Anticipating his future focus on the printmaking process in the `70s, he covers himself with greasy tusche, the substance used to draw on lithographic stone, pressing and rolling his hands and face along the surface of the stone, itself. The narrative quality of the image—in the way it ‘reads’ from left to right—underscores the physical nature of the creative process—and, together with the O’Hara poem, which starts, ”The clouds go soft/ change color and so many kinds/ puff up disperse/ sink into the sea/ the heavens go out of kilter… ” seems to speak directly to the artist in this deeply-personal work. For the viewer, the image is hauntingly reminiscent of the Shroud of Turin, or Durer’s Sudarium, linking his body of work to the ages when the printed image assumed mythic and mystic proportions.
Above, right: Skin with O’Hara Poem, 1965. Lithograph from two stones on KE Albanene Engineer’s standard form paper. Fogg Museum, Margaret Fisher Fund, M22251
Left: Sudarium Displayed by Two Angels, 1513. Engraving from copper plate on antique laid paper. Fogg Museum, Gray Collection of Engravings Fund, G4482. Dürer’s engraving shows two angels holding the sudarium— Latin for “sweat cloth”—imprinted with the face of Christ.
The process of press and release, so essential in the printmaker’s trade is no mere metaphor here and made all the more poignant by the inclusion of the poem by friend and colleague, Frank O’Hara, penned along the margin in the artist’s own hand. One year later, O’Hara was struck and killed by a vehicle while walking on the beach in the Hamptons: press and release, love and let go.
Johns was intrigued by the complex, cerebral operation necessary to bring a print or silk screen to fruition. In 0 through 9, from the portfolio, 1st etching, Second State (1969), right (Harvard/Fogg Museum), he completed as a series of stacked individual prints in an homage to the very act of repetition, itself. Curator Roberts says that “Johns famously described the banal motifs he used, such as numbers, letters and flags as things the mind already knows.” Yet, in this print, he collapses a familiar sequence into a confounding whole, creating a twisted configuration of digits.” Laboring over a single plate with a combination of etching techniques, the unusual stencil-like uniformity which serves as the basis for the numeric series is muted, softened and altered beyond recognition. For Johns, the very methods used to insure replication are disrupted and fused to create a finished product with decidedly abstract features.
In a fascinating and rare example of Johns’s manipulation of the printed form to create a fresh take on a medium known for its consistency is the pair of images, Hatching (front endpapers) from Foirades/Fizzles, prepared as a lining for five texts by Samuel Beckett; and Cancellation proof for Hatching (front endpapers), which assumes a whole new life when reconfigured in the form of a variation on his iconic American flag series of a decade earlier.
Collaborating with master printmaker Aldo Crommelynck, who had worked extensively with Pablo Picasso, Johns once again employed a complex series of printing techniques, including lift-ground aquatint and drypoint to create four plates: one each for orange, green and purple hatching and one for the off-white background. Here, “the artist consciously tailored the system of the print to the book format, considering the relationship between the images on the facing pages, thus demonstrating his attention to the physical life of printed information,” notes Dr. Roberts.
Two years later, Johns returned to cancel the plates for Foirades/Fizzles (1976). Student curatorial assistant Jennifer Quick notes, “While cancellation typically involves altering a plate to prevent further printing, Johns conceived of cancellation as a starting point for new prints. In hatching (front endpaper), the four original plates that were used for Foirades are printed side-by-side in quadrant format, rather than successively, one over another. While the original image was printed in color, this image is printed entirely in black. The original colors remain in name only, with the word for the colored plate that each plate originally carried inscribed along the edge. The darkest quadrant in this print was originally printed as the white background in the Foirades version.”
Right: Cancellation proof for Hatching (front endpaper), 1978, Aquatint and drypoint from four “cancellation” plates. Fogg Museum, Margaret Fisher Fund and Gift of Paul Cornwall-Jones in honor of James Cuno, in his undertaking of the exhibition “Foirades/Fizzles: Echo and Allusion in the Art of Jasper Johns,” 1987, M23424
‘Johns ‘cancelled’ the plates by inscribing each with a semicircle. When the plates are arranged in this flag-like configuration, the arcs form two large circles. These circles, which paradoxically renew the image even while supposedly cancelling it, demonstrate Johns’s interest in the endless potential of the printing plate.”
The work on display in In Press is a visual and symbolic embodiment of a lost era in printing. Now largely obscured by time and the advent of the Information age and its virtual literary artifacts, Johns’s `70s New York City was considered Ground Zero for artistic and intellectual trendsetters. Newspapers, and specifically the New York Times, served as a powerful instrument for making and distributing the news—and for defining who might be newsworthy. As the times moved from hot typesetting to photocomposition and computerized typesetting in 1978, the art and trade of traditional printing was similarly altered forever.
For Johns, the exploration of a dying craft through his work as a printmaker, and specifically and exploration of the manual-mechanical, artisanal practices of printing and printmaking, in retrospect, takes on eulogistic proportions. Curator Jennifer Roberts points out that “The figure of the industrial artisan in the `60s and `70s, modeled the figure of the artist in this period. It was the printmaker, the metalworker, the machinist, the industrial seamstress that had historically occupied the intersection of art and mechanical production—a position that artists themselves were now colonizing in order o trace the bodily costs of their own experience with mechanization.”
“Johns could not likely have foreseen the rapidity with which the ‘death of print’ would arrive, with today’s recalibration of print processes into word processing. But because his work distilled the physicality of print and revealed the peculiar temporality, typology and sociality of its world, Johns’s work might help us better understand the stakes of our ongoing negotiation of the ‘death’—and the future—of print.”
By Richard Friswell, Managing Editor
Jasper Johns/ In Press: The Crosshatch Works and the Logic of Print
On view at Harvard Art Museums/ Arthur M. Sackler Museum
May 22-August 18, 2012
485 Broadway, Cambridge, MA