The footprints at the top of Diver, the handprints at bottom and center, and the arrows, powerfully evoke the physical movement of a dive. But Diver also provides a metaphor for Johns's artistic process: we are invited to immerse ourselves in the rich surface of his thoughts. A dive can be seen as a suspended moment between life and death (the two handprints can also be read as a skull)—and this work has been interpreted as, in part, an homage to the poet Hart Crane, who dived to his death from a ship in 1932.
MoMA Audio: Collection, 2008
Director, Glenn Lowry: This is Diver by Jasper Johns. At the top of the work, youll see footprints, and at the bottom and center, handprints, which seem to evoke the physical movement of a dive.
Curator Emeritus, John Elderfield: Since the marks are of Jasper Johns's feet and hands, it could be thought to be a kind of self-portrait. We think that the way in which he got his image onto the paper was to grease the hands and feet, imprint them, and then sprinkle charcoal on top. It has a very strange emotional tone and part of this, I think, is because of the gray, and the sense of internal light which comes up from the brown paper and the white chalk, the little touches of red and blue paint.
We know that Johns was very interested in the poet Hart Crane, who died by suicide, by drowning. And there's a report of that death that a hand was seen pushed up, above the water as Crane went down. In this case, there are two hands which can be perceived to be pushing up in this drawing, clearly something about falling and moving into the water in a big swan dive.