Jasper Johns (B. 1930)
Jasper Johns (B. 1930)


Jasper Johns (B. 1930)
oil on canvas
48 1/4 x 60 1/4 in. (122.5 x 153 cm.)
Painted in 1991.
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Mr. and Mrs. S.I. Newhouse, Jr., New York
Private collection
E. Heartney, "Jasper Johns: Review," ARTnews, May 1991, p. 145 (illustrated in color).
S. Brundage and J. Goldman eds., Jasper Johns: 35 Years, Leo Castelli, New York, 1993, n.p. (illustrated).
M. Crichton, Jasper Johns, London, 1994, p. 287 and back cover, pl. 230 (illustrated in color).
New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, Jasper Johns, February-March 1991.
New York, Museum of Modern Art, Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, October 1996-January 1997, pp. 361, 362 and 373, no. 232 (illustrated in color).
New York, Gagosian Gallery, The Physical World, May-June 2002, n.p. (illustrated in color).
Minneapolis, Walker Art Center; Greenville County Museum of Art; Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; IVAM Institut Valencià d'Art Modern and Dublin, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Past Things and Present: Jasper Johns Since 1983, November 2003-May 2005, p. 89, no. 42 (illustrated in color).
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Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

Jasper Johns expanded the visual vocabulary of Western contemporary art in ways that are both mysterious and paradoxical. An artist committed to drawing meaning from the efficacy of the image, Johns contextualizes and re-contextualizes—turning images into motifs in an art of appropriation, borrowings, reformulations, and redefinitions. His art is singular for its irony as well as its sincerity. Untitled, 1991, is an extraordinary example of how Johns turned a moment of inspiration, his response to Picasso’s 1936 painting Straw Hat with Blue Leaf, into a font of generative images. “I became interested in looking at that painting — suddenly it held my attention. It became extremely poetic, something that conveys many meanings at once. While looking at it, it interested me that Picasso had constructed a face with features on the outer edge. I started thinking in that direction, and it led me to use the rectangle of the paper as a face and attaching features to it” (M. Crichton, Jasper Johns, New York, 1994, p. 70-71).

Untitled exhibits a proliferation of motifs, among them the “boomerang” shape appropriated directly from the Picasso source with its ambiguous body parts and sexual connotations, and the dispersed facial features across a rectangular shape that the Picasso inspired. The present work is an example of Johns’ disposition of disparate, yet recognizable elements—in this case Picasso’s celebrated Straw Hat with Blue Leaf—on a shallow planar space, as if collaged rather than painted. Johns conflates two manipulations of the Picasso image. First, Johns reuses the idea of a flattened rectangular dispersion of facial features referenced above (“[I used] the rectangle of the paper as a face and attaching features to it”)—one eye in the upper left corner, another in the lower right edge, displaced lips nudging beyond the bottom right edge, and curlicue nostrils, free-floating in space—with the boomerang image itself, literally lifted as a readymade and placed into the central field of the present work. Michael Crichton has linked this with a depiction, by a schizophrenic girl, of her head that Johns recalled seeing in an article in Scientific American in 1952. Another Picasso image, more disturbing and perhaps more in line with the frantic hysteria of the schizophrenic—that of a weeping woman—may well have asserted itself over Johns’ imagination.

Untitled also features Johns’ incorporation of a section of an ambiguous image by W. E. Hill called “My Wife and My Mother in Law” of 1915. First used in Untitled, 1984, and subsequently embedded in several works, the Hill image renders both a young girl looking away, ostensibly Hill’s wife, or, more uncannily, an old woman. The nose of the old woman can be also seen as the chin of the young girl; the young girl’s décolletage, the old woman’s chin; the short curly up-do of the girl’s hair, the old woman’s bangs, etc. Yet unlike the works in which these elements appear seemingly at random, the images in the present work are frontal, floating freely in what seems an almost surrealistic shallow space. Johns was keenly drawn to renderings of spatial ambiguities, flatness, and the disruption of a planar field in a nod to the surrealism of Picasso and to his own sense of dislocation. In a typical enigmatic remark, Johns states “I think most of the power of painting comes through the manipulation of space...but I don’t understand that” (J. Johns, in M. Stevens, “Pessimist at Play,” New Republic, Jan. 9, 1989, p. 26). The fragmentation of the Hill image of the girl/woman in the present work renders only the face, hair, and neck of the girl, which can also be interpreted as the bangs, eye, nose and chin of the old woman. With bulging eyes aggressively protruding from the edges of the work, Johns is able to create in the viewer a strong sense of self-awareness as well as one of dislocation. Johns address the sense of split realities and vertiginous space in the following remark: “My experience of life is that it’s very fragmented. In one place, certain kinds of things occur, and in another place, a different kind of thing occurs. I would like my work to have some vivid indication of those differences. I guess, in painting, it would amount to different kinds of space being represented in it” (Ibid.)

Yet Johns’ spatial manipulations also create a rhythmically balanced formal field, where shapes interlock, and curves nest into one another rather than clash in counterpoint, as in the Picasso original. These two works share the unifying red oxide or burnt sienna background over which Picasso’s and Johns’ forms float. The unmooring of images in the Johns, however, creates a real sense of dislocation and formal ambiguities. This dislocation or the sense of objects in free-floating space references the history of modern art. On the one hand Cubist collage springs to mind, yet on the other, Johns’ handling of figure-ground relationships point to Henri Matisse’s spatial ambiguities such as one encounters in his celebrated The Red Studio, 1911. Matisse’s painting is a study in the color he identifies as red, but which relates closely to the burnt sienna/red of both Johns’ and Picasso’s backgrounds. The free-floating objects, some of which are depicted as negative spaces, call to mind Johns’ treatment of forms in Untitled, in which he suspends his images in a pool of pigment. Johns used these images again in 1987 when he integrated them into a large encaustic and collage painting: all three images appear, the rectangular head with splayed facial features, the Picasso “boomerang” head, slightly melted in a Pollock-like series of drips, and the ambiguous girl/woman.

Johns’ involvement with Picasso is legion, but a well-known anecdote of the way Johns became involved with particular imagery is worth repeating in connection to the present work. In 1985, Johns moved to a studio on the island of St. Martin while at the same time considering a New York location, so disruption and disorder were in the air. Leafing through David Duncan’s book of photographs, Picasso’ s Picassos, his eye fell on Minotaur Moving his House, with its provocative imagery of the reversal of images. “It was the subject matter more than the structure of the painting that interested me… More than most of his painting, the catalog of things is very layered… and of course, it was very odd to see the cart before the horse: the minotaur is pulling the car, and on it is a horse giving birth. There was something very wonderful, very interesting in an unexpected way. It’s not the pursuit of logic. I thought, how did he have that? I wouldn’t have that thought” (M. Crichton, ibid. p. 66). This reflection suggests that reordering and reworking images is Johns’ modus operandi, a kind of thought process revealed, a personal and often private task. As laconic as is his early art, his later works of which Untitled is a part, are at once expressive and mysterious; they dazzle the eye even as they obfuscate meaning. Shifts, returns, elaborations, re-inscriptions, visual and symbolic play characterize his career. Untitled is a significant example of the latter—a semiotic/visual playground where the “eye” can be an “I,” which in turn can mean viewer, Picasso, or Johns himself. This optical and conceptual ambiguity serves to critique not only a culture of spectacle but also the modes of representation. That his later art became more personal as he faced his sixtieth birthday in 1990, merely a year before Untitled was executed, is evidenced in the memories recalled in paintings of this period, traced images that turn more and more to art historical sources. As Johns has stated, he appropriated motifs, juxtaposed freely, and in so doing pointed to a redefinition of art making that was fundamental to his project. The repetitive, reflexive impulse to redraw the map, as it were, of picture making mirrors Johns’ own iterative approach: “Seeing a thing can sometimes trigger the mind to make another thing. In some instances the new work may include, as a sort of subject matter, references to the thing that was seen. And, because the works of painting tend to share many aspects, working itself may initiate memories of other works. Naming or painting these ghosts sometimes seems a way to stop their nagging” (K. Varnedoe, Jasper Johns, brochure to the retrospective at the Museum of Modern At, New York, 1996).

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