In the early 1960s, the inimitable artist Jasper Johns was introduced to the medium of lithography by the now-renowned publisher Tatyana Grosman, the founder of Universal Limited Art Editions (U.L.A.E.), who was working out of her small cottage in West Islip, New York. This seminal moment proved to be a watershed one not only for Johns, but an entire generation of artists, as the prints he produced through U.L.A.E. helped to revolutionize the craft and led to a veritable renaissance of printmaking in America at the time.
When Johns created his first lithographs with U.L.A.E. in the summer of 1960, he was at the height of his artistic powers, well-known around the globe as one of the liveliest and most talented artists in his field. An article appearing in Newsweek proclaimed: “Jasper Johns at 32 is probably the most original younger painter in the world. He has produced surprise after surprise.” (Newsweek, vol. 61, 18 February 1963, p. 65) For Johns, printmaking played a uniquely substantive role in his early work, and he approached the medium with the same imaginative, controlled and masterly execution as he did painting and sculpture. In this selection of prints, much of Johns’ most iconic imagery emerges, in which the consistent need to reconsider and reinvent familiar motifs is explored.
The most celebrated work in his repertoire of prints, Johns’ Ale Cans is one of his first lithographs to depict three-dimensional objects rendered with depth and illusion, and the only print he produced in 1964. This early and important work recreates Johns’ 1960 sculpture of two Ballantine beer cans that he sculpted from life, a wry take on the Duchampian readymade, in which ordinary objects were elevated to “high art.” Unlike Duchamp, Johns recreated his ale cans in painstaking detail by hand, the clues of its creation deliberately left visible in the tiny, hand-formed dents and distortions of the sculpted cans and the imperfect quality of their hand-painted labels. The effect of encountering Johns’ ale cans is like a visual one-two punch: at first glance, standard aluminum beer cans appear as ordinary objects, but upon closer inspection, the witty imperfections of Johns’ technique transform their reading into hand-made objects. Long considered one of his best, most meaningful works, the ale cans retain a palpable sense of awe and wonderment, which Johns so brilliantly recreates in his 1964 lithograph of the work. Silhouetted against a black ground, an air of mystery pervades the Ballantine ale cans, which are depicted true to scale: “Busy tracks of crayon lines weave together the planes of the base, the curves of the cans, and the black void. Finally, a few lines break loose at the edges, pinning the picture flat to its margins. … It becomes clear as Johns returns again and again to familiar images that he seeks not solutions per se, but further values, insights and emotions.” (Riva Castleman, Jasper Johns: A Print Retrospective, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, 1986, pp. 18; 22)
Likewise, Johns explores another of his earliest recurring motifs in the elegant and lyrical 0-9, an extremely early lithograph of 1960. Johns had long been fascinated by numbers as a potential theme (his earliest surviving work, Construction with Toy Piano 1954, depicted a row of numbers), and during the summer of 1960, he explored the idea across a variety of media, producing several paintings, a charcoal drawing and this important lithograph. In 0-9, Johns cleverly overlays a series of numerals from 0 through 9 within a rectangular format that reads like an intricate, visual puzzle. As the eye traces the contours of each numeral, the empirical role of each figure falls away, and the meditative quality of tracing Johns’ brush on stone is released, its labyrinthian effect compelling and hypnotic. There is a sort of time-lapsed, cinematic unfolding to the numerals, which also makes clear the witty pun of Johns’ title (zero “through” nine refers to the numerical sequence but also the ability to see through each number).
For Johns, printmaking suited his unique working process of re-creating recurring motifs across a variety of media, and within five years of working with the lithographic medium, he was widely-acknowledged as a master. In fact, as Michael Crichton described, so much “of his work of the late 1960s concerned print -- so much, in fact, that there were dark rumors that Jasper Johns was finished, burned out, as a painter.” (Michael Crichton, Jasper Johns, New York: Abrams, 1994, p. 44) In this all-encompassing selection of prints, the genius of Johns’ technique is on full display. To quote the critic Leo Steinberg, these prints illuminate Johns’ life-long preoccupation, in which “subjects are carried over, reconsidered from different vantage points and eyes through different lenses. Issues, themes, and working methods echo, re-form, and coalesce across decades. The power of these works is undeniable.” (Leo Steinberg, “Jasper Johns: The First Seven Years of His Art,” Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, New York, 1972)