The Museum of Modern Art's Picasso retrospective of 1980 inspired new themes in Jasper Johns's work throughout the next decade. Picasso's small oil painting, Woman in a Straw Hat, especially caught Johns' eye. This work, in which a woman's face is composed of breast-like forms with eyes functioning as nipples, was reworked by Johns in a series of paintings in the mid- to late 1980s.
Untitled can be seen as a distillation of Johns's response to Picasso's portraiture, one of the major themes of Johns's work in the 1980s. Johns re-imagines the face in Picasso's Woman in a Straw Hat, presenting the viewer with "an even more extreme image in which bulging eyes cleave to the corner and sides of an open field containing equally exaggerated 'cartoons' of nostrils and lips" (K. Varnedoe, Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, 1996, p. 337). This cartoon-like simplicity of line and playful re-arrangement of images reflects Johns's increasing interest in children's drawings and naive perception.
This drawing could be related to John's painting Montez Singing, 1989. The facial features of the eyes, lips, and nose, which are arranged around the perimeter of the painting recall Montez Johns, his youthful step-grandmother singing "Red Sails in the Sunset"
A mood of childish play is further evoked by the way Johns projects his image onto a trompe l'oeil cloth that appears to be nailed to the painted surface of the painting. He "hangs" his work as if for an impromptu public exhibition, inviting the viewer to admire how he has transformed an inanimate material into a live creature. Yet his work is not all about surface and display, for the cloth also seems to hide something behind its curtain-like folds. In this deceptively childlike work, Johns suggests the hidden psychological states that lurk behind the façade of the human face.
Fig. 1 Pablo Picasso, Woman in Straw Hat, 1936, Musée Picasso, Paris