Between 1977 and 1981 the Rives paper company in France altered the formula for their BFK stock. This chance occurrence formed the genesis for a series of unique works on paper which Johns produced in 1982, of which the present work is one of the last examples remaining in private hands.
At the time Johns was working on his lithograph, Savarin 1977-82 at the print workshop ULAE on Long Island. When the lithograph was formally editioned the variance in paper stock was noted, but rather than discard the twenty-seven proofs pulled on the now obsolete paper, Johns decided to use them as the basis for an extended exploration of the monotype process. The opportunity to combine painting with an existing printed image provided Johns with an interesting scenario: the printed base acted as a predetermined structure around which to work, but the artist was entirely free to create variants of the image through the direct application of paint.
Painting directly onto a Plexiglas sheet and then applying this to one of the proofs of Savarin 1977-82, Johns created a series of images which display a remarkable breadth of approach, varying from bright and exuberant to moody and mournful depending on the artist's choice of composition and palette. The present example is from a group produced towards the end of Johns's four days of working through the process. It is the final version from a series of four, each executed in vibrant pastels. This version is the richest and most complex due to the artist's method of retaining the previous design on the Plexiglas when moving to the next version.
The Savarin can is a key motif within the artist's work featuring represented objects. As shown in Savarin 1977-82 and the related monotype series, the can is monumental in scale, much larger than the Painted Bronze (Savarin), 1960 sculpture on which it is based. Depicted in a frontal "portrait" pose the Saravin can acts as a surrogate self-portrait, beneath which the artist has added his outstretched arm. The presence of the arm confirms that Johns is alluding specifically to a self-portrait lithograph from 1895 by Edvard Munch which features the latter's own pale face emerging from a dense dark background, beneath which a skeletal arm appears. By integrating Munch's art into his own, Johns triggers new associations and creates other paths down which the viewer's mind can travel, as well as bringing a new level of meaning to an older image.