Jasper Johns painted a group of three pictures entitled Dancers on a Plane at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s. Dancers on a Plane was completed in 1981 and reprises, on a more intimate scale, the palette and form of the second of the pictures, which is now in the collection of the Tate, London. Here, the zig-zagging hatching and the flashes of color, as well as the diagrammatic dotted line in the centre, all combine to give a sense of pulsing, dance-like rhythm and energy to the picture. This is perfectly suited to its theme, as this and its sister-works were all tributes to his friend Merce Cunningham, for whose dance troupe Johns had been the artistic advisor from 1967 to 1978, participating in a range of their productions. This painting was a gift from the artist to Cunningham, and therefore it is all the more appropriate that his name and the title of the painting are written, with alternating letters, at the bottom of the work.
The cross-hatching technique in Dancers on a Plane had featured in many of his works since the early 1970s; it allowed Johns to play with the entire concept of depicting an illusory scene on a two-dimensional surface. "I think I began doing the cross-hatch paintings as simple mathematical variations about how space can be divided," he explained (Johns, quoted in E.J. Sozanski, The Lure of the Impossible", pp. 224-26, New York, 1996, p.225). The hatchings allow him to explore not only how space can be divided, but also how it can be represented, introducing a wide-ranging critique of Cubism and other schools of modern art. This picture is named after Cunningham's jet-setting troupe of dancers, yet its punning use of 'plane' introduces another agenda, as Johns deliberately mimics the aesthetic of Abstract Expressionism while railing against the confines proclaimed in Clement Greenberg's dictatorship of the picture plane.
Despite the apparent abstraction of Dancers on a Plane, 'figurative' subject matter was here obliquely creeping back into Johns' oeuvre. This is more evident in the artist's frames for the larger two paintings, which were decorated with knives and forks and, in the second work, stylised male and female genitalia. These in turn derived from a seventeenth-century Nepalese painting which had been reproduced in a book Johns had seen, Ajit Mookerjee's Tantra Art: Its Philosophy and Physics, published in 1966 and reprinted in 1971. While those organs are not present in Dancers on a Plane, Merce Cunningham, there is still the vestigial dotted line of the bottom half of the central axis, derived from the beads visible in The Mystical Form of Samvara with Seventy-Four Arms Embracing his Saksi with Twelve Arms. The near-mirror format of Dancers on a Plane allows it, despite its seeming abstraction, to negotiate and explore a range of dichotomies, only some of which are linked to the Tantric original: life and death, creation and destruction, figuration and abstraction, chaos and order... All are present in some way in these heaped, ritualistically-assembled angular lines.
That Nepalese scene of mythological copulation has a dance-like energy to it, accentuated by the many radiant arms spreading out from the central figures, making it all the perfect subject for a gift to Merce Cunningham. This is all the more the case because of the way that, through the Nepalese 'source' image, this painting straddles the world of dance and sex alike, as Johns himself had been personally involved with one of the dancers just prior to this period. It was perhaps this, and also intimations of mortality brought about in part because of the age gap between himself and the dancer, that resulted in his explanation that the Dancers on a Plane and other Tantric pictures were the result of his "thinking about issues like life and death, whether I could even survive. I was in a very gloomy mood at the time I did the picture, and I tried to make it in a stoic or heroic mood. The picture is almost uninflected in its symmetry. There is no real freedom. The picture had to be executed in very strict fashion or it would have lost its meaning" (J. Johns quoted in Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, 1996, p. 301).
The discipline with which the picture has been created is clear in its symmetry and in the rigour with which Johns has presented the various hatch-marks. These are ruled by a procession of changes as the lines descend the canvas, which is divided into horizontal quarters and mirrored across the central axis. At the first horizontal mark, as seen in descending order, there is a change in colour and direction; at the next band, there is a change in colour, but not direction; at the next, a change of direction but not color. In a sense, the picture is creating itself, suggesting itself according to a prescribed set of rules, recalling the strange progress resulting from the Surrealists' game, the Cadavre Exquis. While the hatchings give a sense of bustle and movement that seems to represent the notion of dance, the picture has come into existence governed by its own momentum, just as dance is so often based on pre-determined choreography yet can still have an unpredictable quality. The hatchings allow Johns to create a microcosm within the bounds of the canvas, where rules similar to those which govern the Universe itself are allowed to play themselves out, emphasising the link between Dancers on a Plane and the mystical intercourse in the Tantric picture. This picture is not a mere representation of Nature: instead, it actively encapsulates some of Nature's own processes in the act of its own self-creation, becoming an extension of the Universe.
This notion allows Johns to explore the boundaries of representation which have been so vital to his entire oeuvre. Where formerly Johns had taken flags, targets, the alphabet and even flagstones as a form of readymade subject, here he has used cross-hatching. All these things are usually so recognisable that we pay them little attention, following the initial recognition; when Johns painted them, he managed to shine a new light on their quality, and that of painting itself. What possible purpose can a picture of a flag or target have? What function can hatching have when presented en masse and on its own? Johns said that the inspiration for his cross-hatchings was seeing a car decorated with a similar pattern in Long Island: "I only saw it for a second, but knew immediately that I was going to use it. It had all the qualities that interest me - literalness, repetitiveness, an obsessive quality, order with dumbness, and the possibility of complete lack of meaning" (J. Johns, quoted in "Jasper Johns: Strokes of Genius", Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, New York, 1996, p. 259). In a quasi-Duchampian manoeuvre, Johns took the hatching as an extant theme, appropriating it as subject matter having already seen it inappropriately appropriated on the car, realising that it had a great potential to be inscrutable yet to represent, well, itself, blurring the boundaries between art and reality, conjuring up the opaque literalness central to his greatest works.