Jasper Johns is a master of calculated improvisation, an artist who sometimes recycles motifs--often his own-to create bold new works based on earlier compositions. Painting with Two Balls, 1971 is directly related to the eponymously titled painting from 1960. An iconic Johns work, the painting is a playful yet deadpan critique of the masculine culture of Abstract Expressionism, and the clichi that was prevalent at the time that a painting "should have balls". Ironically, John's painted the 1960's work in thickly painted and brightly colored Abstract Expressionist brushstrokes, which seemingly embraced the very genre that he was lampooning. Painting with Two Balls, 1971 also presages the abstract quality of his later "cross hatch" works in their obsessive mark-making and gridded composition.
Drawing has always been integral to Johns working process, as well as a significant body of work in its own right. Johns' drawings are not idle sketches, but fully realized works, that have a history and a unique importance within his oeuvre (and 20th Century Art). They have been the subject of numerous exhibitions and surveys, including the seminal 1990 retrospective of works on paper organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The present lot was one of only 116 major works on paper to be included in the exhibition.
"The great majority of Johns' drawings are the opposite of preparatory. Rather, they are based on paintings or sculpture that he has already made, sometimes years earlier. Most relate closely to one of his preexisting paintings or sculptures in terms of the antecedent's subject and, quite frequently, in terms of the antecedent's composition. For drawings that follow this procedure, Johns almost always provides titles that are the same as the titles of the painting or sculpture on which the drawings are based" (N. Rosenthal, The Drawings of Jasper Johns, Washington, 1990, p. 14).
In 1971, Johns returned to the Painting with Two Balls painting of 1960. First, he executed a black and white crayon on plastic drawing (in the collection of the artist), which he used as the basis for two screenprints. As is often the case with Johns, he executed one in grays and the other in vivid color. To create the present lot, Johns used a proof of the print, and obliterated all traces of it, although occasional traces of the black outlines and title along the bottom edge show through. He follows the same composition as the print, only he mixes up the color scheme, trading red for green, yellow for orange and blue for purple.
In the present lot, Johns retains the composition and original meaning of the 1960's work, but instead of a variegated palette, he has pared it down to a horizontal tri-partite. The meaning remains the same-the main difference now is that instead of referencing the painterliness of artist's like de Kooning, Johns now references the hard-edged side of Abstract Expressionism such as Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman.
"Over the period of time in which it takes place, the painting process is a way of establishing and clarifying some visual idea, and my paintings often contain layers of uncertainties and changes. A finished painting usually seems to have a clear image, and using it as a subject of drawings may be a form of economics, a way of dealing with an absence of a larger idea. Or one might say that it is a way of bypassing ideas in order to concentrate on the activity of making" (Jasper Johns, as quoted in )
Layered with lush pastel and crayon, Johns has completed worked every inch of the surface, creating three richly colored and luminous bands that brings the drawings of Brice Marden to mind, in their and nuanced texture. He also plays with trompe l'oeil, by way of Picasso and Braque, by not only creating an illusory opening for the two balls, but also mending plates that appear to hold the whole drawing together.
Painting with Two Balls is a master drawing by the artist, in scale, execution and conceptual rigor, and an extraordinary example of the artist's ability to mine his own past in order to create powerfully original works that would influence his later paintings.