Painted in 1981-82, Untitled presents one of Johns' central themes on a colossal scale. The cross hatching pattern that covers this expanse of canvas, punctuated only by shifts in colour and a skull-and-crossbones, hangs inscrutable before us. These lines give nothing away. There appears to be an arbitrary geometry at play in the selection of colours for each patch. Untitled marks the culmination of Johns' use of this theme in his work, showing the developments that had occurred over roughly a decade of his use of the motif. This is especially evident in the density of the hatching, in its thick thatchedness. Unlike some of the earlier works of this series, which featured colored lines against a white background, here the lines have come together to form a complete and impenetrable mesh, symbolic of the wilful yet playful obtuseness of his art. At the same time, Untitled marks the new direction that Johns' art took at this time: it was in the early 1980s that more figurative elements, for instance the skull and crossbones here, began to intrude upon the hatching. This ultimately led to the cross-hatches themselves appearing not as pictures in their own right, but as patches in the collage-like works that would become his signature works in that subsequent period.
When Jasper Johns began painting the 'cross-hatch' works, critics and fans were confused by what they perceived as a change of tack. Before then, he had usually focussed on a what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach to art, whereas the vast expanse of Untitled appears abstract, even geometrical. This abstraction was all the more unexpected in the art of a man considered to have shown painting the way after the hegemony of the Abstract Expressionists. However, the subject matter in these paintings was far from abstract, whatever the impression. Cross hatching is something that we see in everyday life, both in art and decoration and even among the random patterns that appear in this world.
Johns' initial exposure to this pattern was itself impressively random:
'I was driving on Long Island when a car came toward me painted in this way. I only saw it for a second, but knew immediately that I was going to use it. It had all the qualities that interest me - literalness, repetitiveness, an obsessive quality, order with dumbness, and the possibility of complete lack of meaning' (Johns, quoted in S. Kent, 'Jasper Johns: Strokes of Genius', pp. 258-59, Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, ed. K. Varnedoe, New York, 1996, p. 259).
There is a nuance at play in Johns' specifying the possibility of a lack of meaning. For by taking a pattern that he had seen on a car and using it in his art, Johns was showing himself as a figurative painter. During the same period, he also adopted (albeit less often) a flag-stone pattern which he saw once painted in a trompe l'oeil manner on a wall (which he never found again). These seemingly abstract, arbitrary works are closely linked to the world, despite their apparent lack of content. That Johns selected patterns that are more associated with visual texture (indeed, the cross-hatch forms an important part of the draughtsman's and the printer's visual language) itself reinforces the opacity of the work. It is not content, but is shading. It is a reflection of the cross-hatch's detached, impersonal, philosophical stance that Samuel Beckett selected a print of this pattern as the cover to his work Foirades/Fizzles (with his flagstones as the back cover).
Johns uses this 'cross-hatch' to approach the same artistic formula that led to, say, his Flags and Numbers, but here turns it inside out. In 1965, he told David Sylvester that he was 'interested in things which suggest the world rather than suggest the personality. I'm interested in things which are rather than in judgments. The most conventional things, the most ordinary things - it seems to me that those things can be dealt with without having to judge them; they seem to me to exist as clear facts not involving aesthetic hierarchy' (Johns, quoted in R. Francis, Modern Master: Jasper Johns, New York, London & Paris, 1991, p. 21). So in Untitled the pattern itself, rather than any specific object or symbol, is removed from its context, blown up in scale and presented to the world, demanding that we ourselves react in whatever manner suits us. There is no imposition of a thought process or an opinion. Just as this hatching, stripped of all context, stands self-sufficient before us, the artist demands that we stand, self-sufficient, reacting in our own way. There is very little prompting from the artist himself:
'Intention involves such a small fragment of our consciousness and of our mind and of our life. I think a painting should include more experience than simply intended statement. I personally would like to keep the painting in a state of shunning statement, so that one is left with the fact that one can experience individually as one pleases; that is, not to focus the attention in one way, but to leave the situation as a kind of actual thing, so that the experience of it is variable' (Johns, quoted in D. Sylvester, About Modern Art, London, 1997, p. 465).
Johns therefore minimises his own intervention, removes any sense of his own personal, and therefore subjective, reaction to his subject matter in order to allow us to experience his work - in short, to live before it. By adopting the strange and seemingly abstract hatching and a Pollock-like scale in order to do this, Johns adds an ironic twist to the work, mimicking yet mocking the personalised artistic ejaculations of the Action Painters, twisting aspects of their own imagery to his own expressly opaque uses. Untitled is, after all, not a dry conceptual work, but a lively, colorful painting, filled with jazzy movement, reflecting the Duchampian thought processes for which Johns was famed, in which he merged chess-like conceptual games with deep irony and wit.
The presence of the skull and crossbones on the right adds another figurative and interpretative dimension to Untitled, despite the lack of subjectivity in the rigorous cross-hatching. Tantric symbolism had played a part in his work for some years, appearing repeatedly as a dichotomy of skull and sexual organs. Here, the symbol is less Tantric and more popular but nonetheless remains intimately entwined with the theme of mortality. Johns himself said that at the time, he was 'thinking about issues like life and death, whether I could even survive' (K. Varnedoe, Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, exh.cat., New York, 1996, p. 301). Although the Tantric symbols were the products of a period in which Johns has admitted that he was gloomy, their rigidity in composition and execution has little to do with the graffiti-like skull-and-crossbones here. This is not of the same obscure, mystical stable, but instead adds a roguish, lively air to the work, scrawled as it is at the end. It is an oddity within his work, a rare glimpse of autobiography that at the same time reveals nothing, instead presenting the viewer with another symbol, another element from the real world and therefore a new enigma. In Untitled, Johns is flying his colours as one of the rebels and innovators of the avant-garde, continuing to cause chaos in the realms of the conceptual, marking with a flourish the end of one period and the beginning of another.
Paul Cézanne, Pyramid of Skulls, 1898-1900 Private collection
Nepal, 17th century, The Terrific Devata Samvara