Created in 2002, Study for a Painting was a highlight of Jasper Johns' celebrated 2007 exhibition Gray at the Art Institute, Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It is the largest painting from his Catenary series in private hands.
The Catenary works take their name from the word "catena," meaning chain or string; it is also used to describe the way such objects hang. This is clearly a concern in Study for a Painting: the string dominates the picture surface and indeed has dictated the patterns of the grey encaustic background. In the impastoed surface, where each brushstroke and application of encaustic has been retained in a state of lush, palpable preservation, the viewer can bear witness to the accumulation of movements and actions by which this painting has come into existence, echoing into infinity the form of the string. Study for a Painting reveals a means of painting after Duchamp, after Greenberg, after Johns: this work marks the salvation, in our conceptual age, of the entire discipline of painting and, as is clear from its beautifully-articulated surface with its infinite variations of grey, it also marks the celebration.
The form of Study for a Painting has been dictated by its own composite parts, resulting in an intense self-containment of which Wittgenstein would approve. This is emphasized by the reductive, literal title emblazoned across the bottom. Study for a Painting is, in essence, a study of painting: Johns has taken the essential ingredients of his medium and has used them as the launch pad for an exploration of the entire picture surface, taking his cues from the various elements, be it wood, string or canvas. He explained that he was "bringing what is usually concealed behind the painting in front of the painting" (Johns, quoted in B. Klüver, "Interview," pp. 84-91, K. Varnedoe (ed.), Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, New York, 1996, pp. 87-88). This idea, which first appeared in his 1956 work Canvas where the bars of the stretcher were attached to the surface, reflects a rigorous self-scrutiny: Johns knowingly deconstructs, reconfigures and then explores the entire syntax and vocabulary of painting, placing the entire discipline under intense investigation while allowing the components to stand up in their own right.
Regarding the incorporation of elements such as string and wood in his compositions, Johns explained that, "My use of objects comes out of, originally, thinking of the painting as an object and considering the materialistic aspect of painting: seeing that painting was paint on canvas, and then by extension seeing that it occupied a space and sat on the wall, and all that, and then, if those elements seemed to be necessary to what I was doing" (Johns, quoted in ibid., pp. 87-88). In Study for a Painting, the medium, to borrow a phrase from Marshall McLuhan, really is the message. The fact that Johns has allowed the form and indeed the spectral hints of image in the surface to be dictated by the way that the cord hangs reveals his continued practice of employing seemingly arbitrary subjects and materials in order to place art under inspection anew, while also creating something that does not reflect, refer or represent, but instead simply is.
Gravity has played as much of a role in the composition as Johns himself, introducing an element of chance that recalls his great idol, Marcel Duchamp, whose work he had come to know during the late 1950s. Study for a Painting clearly recalls Duchamp's Stoppages, in which the French master of Dada had dropped meter-long pieces of string onto a canvas from a height of a meter before recording and preserving the position and form in which they landed. The manner in which Johns' piece of string hangs from the front of Study for a Painting echoes Duchamp's own fascination with chance, and it also means that the work of art has to some degree created itself. The use of string also links Study for a Painting to his great friend and fellow artist, Robert Rauschenberg, and especially to Untitled, circa 1955, a combine formerly owned by Johns which incorporates a parachute and its hanging cords at the bottom.
In Study for a Painting, Johns has returned to the use of encaustic, a technique in which the pigment is suspended in wax which is applied, while warm and wet, to the canvas and there quickly solidifies, each mark retaining its discrete form and color. This arcane technique, which he employed in the creation of many of his early masterpieces, such as the Flag (Lot 7) captures the palpably gestural quality of so much of the picture surface. The potentially leaden grey that dominates so much of Study for a Painting is counteracted by the sheer vibrancy of the mark-making processes that have so visibly resulted in its appearance: a thousand tones have coalesced in this gradual accretion of encaustic, and they are thrown all the more dynamically into relief by their contrast with the canvas, the wood and the string.
Johns' use of gray - which he has told several interviewers is his favourite colour - adds to the emphasis on the objecthood of the painting. For a start, it allows him to "avoid the color situation,"
As he explained:
"The encaustic paintings were done in gray because to me this suggested a different kind of literal quality that was unmoved or unmoveable by coloration and thus avoided all the emotional and dramatic quality of color. Black and white is very leading. It tells you what to say or do. The gray encaustic paintings seemed to me to allow the literal qualities of the painting to predominate over any of the others" (Johns, quoted in J. Rondeau, "Jasper Johns: Gray," pp. 22-79, J. Rondeau & D. Druick (ed.), Jasper Johns: Gray, exh. cat., Chicago & New York, 2008, p. 44).
It is the inscrutability of grey that Johns appreciates, and the fact that, like his Flags and Targets, the viewer can be immune to it, can skim over it and concentrate on what is really important: the constituent parts themselves, and the act of painting. Johns had begun to paint grisaille works early on, for instance in his Gray Alphabets of 1956, realizing that, "through the use of gray, the object nature of the materials would come forward, their physical existence isolated or intensified" (Johns, quoted in N. Rosenthal, "A Conversation with Jasper Johns," pp. 156-61, Rondeau & Druick (ed.), loc. cit., 2008, p. 161). Within the Catenary series, grey dominates; Johns explained that this colour choice functioned, in a sense, as "a sort of school uniform" (Johns, quoted in ibid., p. 160). In this way, Study for a Painting uses the gray as a foil to the immense amount of workmanship and effort that are showcased in its gloriously articulated surface. The muted palette allows Johns to reveal the mechanisms that usually result in painting and present them in an exciting new light.