Despite its diminutive scale, Litanies of the Chariot ranks as one of the most fascinating statements in the early drawing of Jasper Johns. It shows directly for the first time Johns' deep connection with the art of Marcel Duchamp, whose influence has acted as the foundation stone for many of his greatest works throughout his career.
As early as 1957, critics had assumed a relationship between Duchamp's ready-mades and Johns' use of "ready-made" subjects such as flags, numbers and targets, which they labeled as "Neo-Dada". The term prompted Johns to actually read about Dada and Duchamp, and together with Robert Rauschenberg, he visited the extensive Duchamp collection in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In 1959, the critic Nicolas Calas brought Duchamp to Johns's and Rauschenberg's Front Street studios to view their work. By 1960, Johns further familiarized himself with the French artist's radical ideas by reading the notes for his masterpiece The Large Glass, compiled in an edition known as the Green Box, which had just become available in English for the first time.
According to Roberta Bernstein, Litanies of the Chariot is Johns's first appropriation of another artist's work. The Green Box contained scraps of handwritten notations and free-association ideas, which Duchamp had collected over the eleven years that he laboriously worked on The Large Glass. "The Chariot" is a component of the "Bachelor Apparatus", the male section of the picture, and the "Litanies" are Duchamp's ruminations regarding its movement. "These "Litanies" from the Green Box are an odd mixture - the "cheap" materials to be used for the chariot's construction ("Junk of Life"), and suggestions of emotional and erotic stasis ("Slow life," "Vicious circle", "Onanism," "Monotonous fly wheel.")." (R. Bernstein, "Seeing a Thing Can Sometimes Trigger the Mind to Make Another Thing," in Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, exh. cat., MoMA, New York 1996,
Johns takes these odd words and phrases and delicately transcribes them, covering them and the paper with an exquisitely complex surface of graphite marks. Duchamp's random invocations become "ready-made" pictorial ideas for Johns; the earlier artist's pure conceptualism gives rise to a drawing where words and letters function visually and with extraordinary beauty.
Litanies of the Chariot was given to Dorothy Miller by Robert Scull, the pioneering collector of Johns and the Pop artists.