No other contemporary works of art seem to invite interpretation more than a painting by Jasper Johns. Conversely, nothing is so difficult to unlock, to decipher, than the meaning of the various images that are assembled in the paintings by this most enigmatic of artists. From the very beginning, when he drew inspiration from a dream and created the first of his famous paintings of the American flag, Johns's paintings are both direct and insrcutable. A flag, after all, is a flag--at least at first glance. But Johns' work reveals a complex mind at work--one that can transform the seemingly simple statement into a complex philosophical inquiry about the very nature of painting itself, involving such issues as three-dimensional (real) space versus two-dimensional (illusory) space and cultural iconography from the Pop consumer culture incorporated into fine art contexts.
In the 1980s, Johns work moved from the more objective paintings of the 1960s and 1970s to a more personal mode of expression. Many of the images seem to be self-referential--Racing Thoughts, 1983 (Whitney Museum of American Art) is a compendium of the artist's life: a painted puzzle portrait of his longtime dealer and friend Leo Castelli; some George Ohr pots that Johns collects; a Barnett Newman drawing taped to a wall in the artist's Stony Point house. These 1980s paintings culminated in the series of the Four Seasons, (1985-1986) which were loaded with personal symbolism, and which have been written about "as a benchmark in the history not only of American art but also in American autobiography" (J. Russell, "Jasper Johns", The New York Times, Feb. 6, 1987). Johns has stated, "In my early work, I tried to hide my personality, my psychological state, my emotions. This was partly due to my feelings about myself and partly due to my feelings about painting at the time. I sort of stuck to my guns for a while but eventually it seemed like a losing battle. Finally, one must simply drop the reserve" (M. Crichton, Jasper Johns, New York 1994, p. 62).
Untitled, 1991 is one painting of a series of works in the 1990s whose images are at first baffling but which strongly invite us to discover and unlock the puzzle of their meaning. Lushly painted--Johns's careful attention to brushwork and surface effects are well-known. Untitled's high tactile quality increases the viewer's response, causing one to spend more time trying to decipher its message. However hermetic the images appear, the artist has given some clues. The main source is a Picasso painting, Straw Hat with Blue Leaf, 1936 (Musée Picasso), from which Johns has appropriated the curious, unblinking surrealist eyes with lashes, and the main central vertical figure, which in Picasso's painting is a vase with leaves standing on a book as its base. The various squiggles of mouths and noses, and the enigmatic horizontal image in vertical gray stripes in the center of the painting, are either the artist's invention, or the source has yet to be indentified. Johns himself has refused all inquiries about the source of the horizontal figure. And the reasons for these images to be put together as they are remains puzzling: speculative critics have seen a kind of resurrection image, with unseeing eyes witnessing a miracle of alchemical creation. Others have seen it as an investigation of Surrealist-based, Picassoid invention of form.
The specificity of design, shape and outline tempts the viewer to speculate about these images' meaning. Johns's own reputation as a major artist spurs the viewer to take their associative meaning more seriously, to serach with more diligence to unlock their nuances. Perhaps it is the giving in to this speculation, to the very search for meaning, that is what these paintings, like the earliest Johns work, are truly about.