Untitled is a dialogue between two panels of an expansive canvas, one dominated by a gray void and shot through with a chromatic spectrum, the other a chromatic spectrum pierced by a chasm of gray. The binary relationship of this compositional structure captures a sense of the breadth of Johns's interests in painting, which challenged accepted notions of the medium from both loftily cerebral and materially grounded points of view.
Kirk Varnedoe's elegant précis of the character of Johns's work is particularly relevant to the contemplation of Untitled: "[There is a] particular blend of stimulations, irritations, and rewards that we sense as a personality or character in the presence of Johns-made objects, with their yes-no rhythms of fast and slow, thick and thin, liquidity and dryness, intimacy and implacable chilliness, the literal and the inexplicable in fusion. Johns has been at various times the wielder of a cool, smoothly anonymous touch, and at others the author of some of the densest and most caressed surfaces in contemporary painting; in turn a master of monochrome whites and grays, a strict practitioner of primary and secondary hues only, and then a painter who runs the chromatic scale, from body colors -- the pinks of flesh and lips, sanguine crimson -- through orchid tints to fauve fireworks" (K. Varnedoe, quoted in Jasper Johns, A Retrospective, exh. cat. Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 15).
Untitled juxtaposes both color and technique. The rival palettes of mute gray and radiant color suggesting absence versus plentitude, are applied in distinct ways. The gray pigment appears to have been applied by a broad brush, creating a modulated surface as the result of differing passages of transparency versus opacity. The technicolor spectrum, on the other hand, has been created by pulling the pigments across the surface, using the device of the wooden bars that Johns has attached with metal hinges to the canvas, seemingly at the termination point of the action that brought them into being. Applying paint by scraping it in this manner loads the canvas with a sense of the force and tensile pressure brought to bear in this extended movement across the surface, while at the same time it makes the gesture a quasi-mechanical one, further reiterated in the use of a readymade chromatic spectrum whose bars of color are measured out in uniform increments.
In the early 1960s, Johns had developed the method of using wooden stretcher bars or rulers to apply paint to the canvas, laying bare the process of creation. A work that is related to the present painting, Untitled in the Stedelijk Museum, contrasts solid planes of color with a variety of painted and assembled elements, including a color spectrum applied by scraping it across the canvas in an arc, with rulers laid next to the edge that reiterate the quantitative division of each line of color. This was one of the ways that Johns chose to shift the viewer's attention back to the material status of the painting. As Varnedoe has pointed out, "he appears to have found in such measuring tools a distinct vein of associations, tied up with the basic processes of breaking a whole into parts and subsuming disparate things under a single order of standard, conventional increments.The presence of rulers, thermometers, color charts and makeshift compasses as instruments of hard quantification within the ostensibly unmeasurable ambiguities of the pictorial field produced a collision he found interesting" (Ibid., p. 26).
Johns was intrigued by the possibilities of working on large-scale paintings in the mid-1960s, and produced some of the biggest works of his career during this period. Its vast scale (over eight feet wide) is crucial to the visual impact of Untitled, yet the work is also marked by the influence of Johns's explorations into printmaking. As Varnedoe explains, "From 1960, Johns's own work in printmaking further attuned him to (among other things) overlay, delay, surface resistance, mirror reversal, the modular partition of wholes into parts, and figure/ground separation.The mirroring and variation effects of print transfer -- which dovetailed with Johns's interest in basic matters of identity, repetition and change -- could for example translate into diptychs that made a new whole out of two mirrored parts" (Ibid., p. 27). The structure of Untitled plays with the ideas of repetition and positive/negative relationships, as the two sides of the canvas present a reversal of figure and ground. Johns confounds the logic of simple reversal, however, as the colored spectrum at the left is not just a fragment of the missing portion at right, but is rather a reprise of the spectrum on a reduced scale.
By drawing attention to the process of making the work, and opening up incongruities within the composition, Johns foregrounds in Untitled the visceral experience of looking. As Johns insisted, "I think a painting should include more experience than simply intended statement. I personally would like to keep the painting in a state of 'shunning statement,' so that one is left with the fact that one can experience individually as one pleases; that is not to focus the attention in one way, but to leave the situation as a kind of actual thing, so that the experience of it is variable" (J. Johns, quoted in Sylvester, "Interview with Jasper Johns," p. 19.).