“Much has been said of [the crosshatch] works. Their hidden sequences, their almost continuous mirroring of one another, their ingrown rhythms, the artist’s delight in moving from one medium to another…” (J. Russell, “Review/Art; After the Crosshatch: Johns in Philadelphia,” The New York Times, 24 October 1988, n.p. [accessed online]).
“Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it” (J. Johns, “Sketchbook Notes,” Art and Literature 4, Spring 1965, p. 192).
Jasper Johns’ Untitled is a strikingly chromatic, dynamic work from the artist’s celebrated crosshatching series. From the mid-1970s to mid-1980s in a period of major formal unity, Johns delved into a visual exploration of the crosshatch (or more accurately the parallel hatch, as his animating diagonal strokes, arranged in clustered bunches, typically do not cross). To Johns, the crosshatch was a “thing the mind already knows,” an unexamined form ripe for appropriation (J. Johns, quoted in Jasper Johns Flags, exh. cat., London, 1996, p. 15). He knew that a closer look would reveal that the crosshatch, like the flag, is not only representational but also highly abstract. In Johns’s crosshatch works, an arbitrary or otherwise opaque system replete with canny reflections and reversals in space seems to govern the bundling of the brightly colored strokes into triangular or quadrangular bunches. The result brilliantly problematizes the picture plane, as it simulates allover abstraction on a flat ground while simultaneously creating its own sense of shifting three-dimensional space. Of Johns’ major motifs, it is the ontologically slippery hatchmark that best captures the artist’s commitment to maintaining a level of productive ambiguity, in keeping with the dialecticism at the heart of his oeuvre. The present work and others from the crosshatching series court but ultimately deflect meaning; signification nestles into and ricochets off of Johns’s bundled strokes. With a visual and intellectual vigor, Untitled achieves Johns’s lofty proto-postmodern aim of “confus[ing] the meaning of the act of looking” (J. Johns quoted in K. Varnedoe (ed.), Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, New York, 1996, p. 104).
In the present work, bundled diagonal strokes slip into and elide one another. Johns has arranged parallel lines into alternating, somewhat geometric bunches, with a grille-like aspect that has been compared to the palm fronds in Matisse’s Blue Nude. Primary strokes of yellow, red, and blue are complemented with swipes of green, purple, and orange and insulated with achromatic gray. In a Johnsian fashion, these marks ironically appropriate the gestures of Abstract Expressionist painting conceptually, rendering the movement’s characteristically impassioned brushstroke a basic unit of a system. The hatchmarks borrow from the visual vernacular of printmaking in which the crosshatch is used as a visual device to give a flat surface the illusion of volume. Isolated and enlarged, the hatch form is resolutely flat and yet, when arranged just so, they create an animated—fragmented yet rhythmic—abstract field. “Johns puts two flinty things in a picture and makes them work against one another so the mind is sparked,” wrote art critic and art historian Leo Steinberg. “Seeing becomes thinking” (L. Steinberg, “Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public,” Harper’s Magazine, vol. 224 no. 1342, March 1962, p. 14). The crosshatching element first emerged in Johns’ artistic practice in a real way in 1972, when he covered the leftmost section of a panoramic painting with colorful hatch marks. Just two years later, he completed a painting entirely devoted to the motif; it remained central to his practice in to early and mid-1980s. While the crosshatch is clearly connected to the artificial visual iconography used to simulate depth, most typically in printmaking, Johns actually was inspired to develop the crosshatching motif after a real-world encounter. “I was driving on Long Island when a car came toward me painted in this way. 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” (Johns, quoted in S. Kent, “Jasper Johns: Strokes of Genius,” K. Varnedoe (ed.), Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, New York, 1996, p. 259).
While the possibility of a lack of meaning in the motif appealed to Johns, so did the crosshatch’s potential to take on meaning. The crosshatch drummed up associations with printmaking and expressionist mark-making, harkening back to earlier works by Johns, like Jubilee and False Start, in which he appropriated the lively gestural brushstrokes of Abstract Expressionism, frequently setting them at diagonals to one another. The hatched work tempts the viewer to conjure up images and allusions from the abstracted field, but even the system structuring the pattern is erratic. Art historian and critic Joseph Masheck wrote of the hatching, “The exact workings of the system are hidden from view, submerged in a rich texture of strokes…Here we cannot even be certain, although the overall pattern seems more or less equally dense, of what is symmetrical and what is asymmetrical, of what is asymmetrically systematic and what is asymetrically unsystematic” (J. Masheck, “Jasper Johns Returns,” Art in America, March/April 1976 in S. Brundage (ed.), Jasper Johns: 35 Years: Leo Castelli, 1993, New York, n.p.). The hatching stands before the viewer, at once wholly self-sufficient and as a text desirous of a reader; as Johns explained, “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 quoted in D. Sylvester, About Modern Art, London, 1997, p. 465).
One of the most recognizable names in modern art, Jasper Johns has produced an oeuvre that fundamentally questions vision and picture-making. In his engagement with the crosshatch motif, the artist transcended the hard lines dividing abstraction from representation and meaning from its lack. “Patterns, slippage, materiality, time, irreversibility, gravity, helplessness,” wrote poet John Yau, describing Johns’ crosshatch work (J. Yau, A Thing Among Things: The Art of Jasper Johns, New York, 2008, p. 95). It is that rich open-endedness—that poetic opacity—that makes the present work so compelling.