One of the most revered artists of the twentieth-century, Jasper Johns is also one of its most inventive, having tirelessly reimagined many of his most famous motifs across a wide variety of media throughout a career that spans six decades. His paintings strike a careful balance between their international status as icons of Pop Art and the more personal, intimate pull that they elicit in each viewer.
In the 1970s, Johns eschewed the flags, targets and numerals of the prior decade in favor of pure abstraction, selecting a unique style of patterning where short linear elements are gathered together at varying angles. This “crosshatch” technique, as it has come to be known, derives from printmaking, where the short diagonal lines convey shadow and depth. One of the first paintings to employ this crosshatch technique was Corpse and Mirror, painted in 1972. Cicada, painted in 1980, continues this decade-long exploration of the crosshatch motif, rendered in vibrant jewel tones, and delineated using the intriguing medium of colored inks on a translucent plastic sheet.
Created between 1978 and 1984, the Cicada series encompasses a wide range of media that includes prints, paintings and, in the present work of 1980, ink and graphite on plastic. “Although Johns had begun to work with ink on plastic sporadically in the 1960s, through the course of the ‘70s it emerged as his preferred graphic medium,” the art historian Roni Feinstein explained, writing in Arts Magazine in 1981. “In its manipulation he is something of a wizard, using its unique liquidity and transparency to a wide variety of effects” (R. Feinstein, “Jasper Johns,” Arts Magazine, April 1981, p. 7).
Rendered in a prismatic array of colored inks that have been brushed onto a translucent plastic sheet, Cicada crackles and snaps with a reverberating buzz. A lush patterning of vibrant primary and secondary colors extends throughout the sheet, arranged in short linear segments that are sandwiched with black ink, and deftly applied by an assured hand. “Rendered in a wide range of bright fresh colors and black, the translucent hatching lines seem to float against the plastic like elements in a scattered liquid suspension,” Feinstein declared. “The most spectacular results are attained” (R. Feinstein, ibid., p. 7).
Although Johns had first worked in this medium as early as 1961, it was not until the late 1970s that his enthusiasm for it really took off. Between 1978 and the early 1980s, the ink on plastic drawings were an intriguing constant in Johns’s oeuvre. The artist enjoyed the fact that the slippery surface of the plastic sheet prevented the ink from adhering, and it therefore pooled in unique, unusual and spontaneous arrangements. “When the colored ink is laid down on the matte plastic surface, the brush leaves pools of grainy liquid that flow and puddle like the ink in the pores of a lithographic stone,” the art critic Kay Larson explained, in her review of Cicada in New York magazine in early 1981.
In early 1981, Johns selected Cicada for an exhibit he curated at Leo Castelli Gallery that January, which intended to demonstrate a cross-sampling of his most important drawings of the 1970s. “It is, however, unquestionably the drawings in ink on plastic that ‘steal the show,’” Roni Feinstein had observed (R. Feinstein, op. cit., p. 7).
For Jasper Johns, change was the constant enduring motif throughout his career, and he was able to effortlessly revitalize his many themes by reinventing them in new media. “The Cicada title has to do with the image of something bursting through its skin, which is what they do,” Johns explained. “You have all those shells where the back splits and they’ve emerged. And basically that kind of splitting form is what I tried to suggest” (J. Johns, quoted in K. Martin, director of Jasper Johns, a film of the artist produced in 1980). Not unlike the eponymous cicada after which the series is named, which passes through a series of changes during its life cycle, Johns was able to sustain change while demonstrating the continued prowess of an intuitive, deeply felt design.