“It looks simple and arbitrary and thoughtless and it’s full of interesting…interesting-what? Thoughts, I guess. It’s a still life with a book and a vase. The head can be seen as a [fruit hanging from] a branch. It’s rich in a kind of sexual suggestion, and extremely complicated on that level. And it seems so offhand”
- Jasper Johns
Untitled, Jasper Johns’ charming tondo from 2001, is a kind of pastel puzzle. While Johns is a master recycler of his own ideas—his motifs repeatedly resurface, evolved, across media and in later work—he also borrows from his art historical predecessors when it suits him, including Duchamp, Holbein, and Grünewald. The visual playfulness that characterizes the present piece stems from the artist’s intense engagement with the work of Pablo Picasso, a development in Johns’ practice which accompanied his renewed interest in childhood in the late 1980s. The appropriative work also engages in conceptual play that, delighting in ambiguity, is Johnsian in nature. Untitled cannibalizes Picasso’s Straw Hat with Blue Leaves, 1936, a Picasso image which Johns first encountered in a book alongside two other Picasso works that influenced the artist, Minotaur Moving House, 1936 and The Shadow, 1953 (these works can be clearly seen in Johns’s four-painting classic, The Seasons, 1985-1986, which documents the periods of Johns’ own life up to that point). Untitled blatantly borrows from Straw Hat’s bulbous head, which includes large, lashed eyes that double as nipples on both sides of the breast-like form. Johns takes the joke further by cleverly coupling the Picassoid profile with an image derived from a drawing for Puck magazine, the optical illusion “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law,” by the illustrator W.E. Hill. “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law” is an instantly recognizable example of the manner in which a single image can simultaneously be perceived in two totally different ways: the “dual” profile can be equally read as either a young woman or an old crone, with one’s chin serving as the nose of the other.
Johns, who tends to be tight-lipped about his symbolism, has remarked that the tondo’s tree branches are a reference to the flower drawings of Edward Lear, the Victorian poet and cartoonist who is best known for his nonsensical limerick collection. In spite of its appealingly leafy green border, this pastel has an element of the sinister. The side-by-side silhouettes, Picasso’s Straw Hat tinted an unhealthy purple hue, dangle from the verdant tree like Christmas ornaments or, on a darker note, strange fruit. Superimposed against the tondo’s globe-like blue background, the dual faces seem precariously poised against the world. As Johns said of Picasso’s Straw Hat with Blue Flowers, “It looks simple and arbitrary and thoughtless and it’s full of interesting... interesting-what? Thoughts, I guess. It’s a still life with a book and a vase. The head can be seen as a [fruit hanging from] a branch. It’s rich in a kind of sexual suggestion, and extremely complicated on that level. And it seems so offhand” (J. Johns quoted in C. Craft, Jasper Johns, New York, 2009, p. 198).
Both the Picassoid profile and the “dual” female profile clearly fascinated Johns: over time, he used them in various untitled images, including collages, drawings and paintings, from the mid-1980s through the 1990s. In particular, Johns found myriad ways to employ the Picasso head. In some instances, Johns iterated and juxtaposed the profile; in others, he deconstructed it, lining up individual elements—like the eyes—along the perimeter of a drawing, or, as in Montez, Singing, 1989, creating a painting with an eye on each side, more or less on a diagonal, and a mouth on the bottom, a kind of loopy riff on Cubism. Johns referred to these deconstructed pieces as “infantile,” describing them “images of faces where features seem to float about. One tends to associate it with Picassoesque distortion. So there’s a conflation of infantile and adult, if you rank Picasso as an adult” (Ibid., p. 201).
Johns’ use of archetypal faces goes back to one of his first Target paintings, Target with Four Faces, 1955. The work famously incorporated four boxes at the top of the canvas, each containing the tinted plaster cast of the same female face, shown from just the top of her nose to below her mouth. Prototypical faces continue to appear in Johns’ work: his humorous Shrinky Dink series of 2011 was based on drawings he made on a 1980s children’s toy that shrinks to almost half-size when heated. While appropriative, the faces of the tondo likely have personal resonances for Johns. Johns’ art from the mid-1980s on has been notably—and deliberately—more autobiographical than previous work. In 1984 Johns said of these developments, “In my early work I tried to hide my personality, my psychological state, my emotions... but eventually it seemed like a losing battle. Finally, one must simply drop the reserve” (J. Johns in conversation with A. Bernard and M. Thompson in “Johns on…”, Vanity Fair, February 1984, p. 65). As a young boy in North Carolina in the 1930s, Johns collected gourds and create funny faces on them; in 2011 he invoked that memory, showing images of gourds with painted faces at Matthew Marks Gallery. Despite the subtle sophistication of this colorful 2001 work, with its art-historical allusions and double entendres, it is tempting to think of the tondo’s two pendular faces as adult versions of those childhood gourds.