Untitled presents Jasper Johns’s now-canonical cross-hatch images rendered in a chromatic display of alternating primary and secondary hues. Black framing lines propel the directional force of these variously colored parallel markings, as if color is projected beyond its tripartite surface organization in an excitation of tonal richness. The muscularity of these phalanxes of hand-drawn bundled lines—grouped variously in number and structurally organized in contrasting, oblique, and mirror reversals—challenges the blackened frame surrounding the horizontal format. These crosshatchings transgress their own boundaries with an ebullience that dazzles the eye. No colored patch or grouping abuts a group of the similar color dispositions. Such surging angularities, arranged in contiguous formations, suggest geometries gone awry, slanting grids, jagged, bent, and pushing against a laterally extended surface plane. Divisions articulated by juxtaposed panels reflect the changing dominant tonalities from greens, blues, and reds, to yellows, reds, and cerulean blue, to predominantly blues and yellows. The patches of markings that abut the junctions of each panel seem to counter the directional trajectories. Each mark leaves a personal trace of the artist’s presence—an index of his energetic touch, a tactile counterpoint that delivers an intense optical charge.
Between 1972 and 1983 Johns explored what had been considered an ancillary, if essential element in rendering volume and depth in drawing that reached back to Renaissance and Baroque masters, such as Rembrandt. Pablo Picasso famously adopted this technique in his 1907 Demoiselles d’Avignon, as well as in his etching Weeping Woman, after which Johns named a celebrated cross-hatching painting from 1975. Indeed, these marks also evoke the paintings of Edvard Munch, and the relationship between Johns and Munch is the subject of an upcoming exhibiton organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts beginning in November 2016. Paradoxically, Johns uses this schema not to render volumetric shapes or shading, but rather to foreground the flatness of the picture plane by means of a nearly decorative patterned surface. Yet even as Johns strives for a literal marking out of the surface, his gestures recall the emotive muscularity of the previous generation of Abstract Expressionists, artists whose work lay in oblique relationship to Johns’s own inventive oeuvre.
In negotiating an array of artistic strategies that mimed, yet played against, the foregoing emotive art-making of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, Johns employed a marking technique grounded in painterly abstraction. At the same time, he rendered this technique paradoxical by expressing literal repetition in full force. Each form is clearly drawn by hand in varied iterations that nonetheless emphasize the “obsessive” quality of this allover pattern. The motive, which first appears in the four-paneled Untitled from 1972 becomes the single-most dominant motivic element in works in various media for the next decade. From 1975, it gained a density and muscularity that its earlier iterations lacked. In Untitled, repetitive stripes in two to three contrasting colors surge against rough black contour lines. Touch is elemental, its apprehension by the viewer brought about by paint stick against material support. In describing this effect, Johns stated, “They [the hatch marks] became very complex...with possibilities of gesture and the nuances that characterize the material—color, thickness, thinness – a large range of shadings that become emotionally interesting” (J. Johns, quoted in D. Sylvester, About Modern Art, London, 1997, p. 15). The nuances in expressive content appealed to Johns, as did the manner of its execution: it could read as sophisticated (like Matisse) or take on an aspect of “street art,” even as Johns wanted it to look like neither (R. Bernstein, “Johns and Becket: Foirades/Fizzles,” The Print Collector’s Newsletter 7, no. 5 (November-December, 1976, p. 43).
Allover iterations thread through Johns’ works up to this period—Flag, 1958; Gray Alphabets, 1960, and the later “flagstone” motif that precedes the crosshatch series. Cross-hatching as a procedure is the basis of an extraordinary list of masterworks by the artist, most in museum collections. Johns’s markings deflect traditional subject matter or expression in favor of surface activation, where changes in applied pressure of the paint stick can be perceived, as can smears and overruns. The form of the work becomes in itself the vehicle of expression: the specific configuration and dazzling chromatic palette, despite their irrefutable and irreducible object-quality, are rendered in an almost narrative sequence. As our eyes course over the surface, color, pattern, and texture are recognized sequentially, as is Johns’s effortful physicality.
In its insistent abstraction, Untitled foregrounds pattern and materials. And just as cross-hatching was historically used to shade, so Johns’s exuberant “shadings”—or perhaps “veilings”—suggest a deeper relationship to his forbears. Even as Johns’s non-representation is a dazzling statement of color, ordered and disordered, so it is relational, executed against the expressive, gestural allover quality of abstract expressionism. Imagine Jackson Pollock’s airdropped paint sloshes suddenly straightened and systematized in repeating geometries. Johns may, indeed, conflate examples of Western art in his crosshatched surfaces, but even beyond such precursors, Untitled’s stunning chromatic charge and its rhythmic tour de force of reflective mirroring and reversals, derives from the artist’s individual strokes, which articulate a dynamic surface unity. The power of this surface lies in its texture: here in Untitled, the paint stick takes the viewer beyond the planar decoration of bundled parallel strokes to the means of their making, even as meaning per se is veiled by the very curtain of its allover abstract configuration. “I would personally like to keep the painting in a state of shunning statement…to leave the situation as a kind of actual thing, so that the experience of it is variable” (J. Johns, ibid., p. 465).