It caught my eye when I read last week that Jasper Johns has created a print on translucent paper for the May issue of Art in America magazine. Apparently, the print will feature several of Johns’s “signature motifs,” but the translucent paper might be considered somewhat of a signature motif in its own way. Johns has been making works on sheets of translucent plastic since the early 1960s, when he discovered the material at an art and drafting supply shop in South Carolina, where he lived at the time. Drawing on the plastic sheets with ink applied by pen or brush, Johns pioneered a technique that he has continued to integrate into his repertoire to the present—four examples from his most recent body of work are on view in MoMA’s current exhibition Jasper Johns: Regrets.
The exhibition centers on a group of two paintings, 10 drawings, and two prints that Johns created over the last year and a half. All share the same composition, based on an old photograph of Lucian Freud sitting on a bed holding his face in his right hand, which Johns had seen reproduced in an auction catalogue. (Johns was equally inspired by the damaged state of the photograph itself, especially the large irregular loss in the left corner and along the bottom edge. He developed a composition that mirrored the image of Freud horizontally, so that the doubled loss from the photograph creates a dominant form at the center of each work.) Four of these works are ink on plastic drawings. A series within a series, this stunning group of drawings exemplifies the continuous revision and variation of a single source that is essential to the body of work in the exhibition, but also to Johns’s work as a whole.
In an oft-quoted 1989 interview with Ruth Fine and Nan Rosenthal, Johns articulated the appeal of the ink on plastic technique for him. Not surprisingly, it involves the combination of elements of chance and a well-cultivated inscrutability: “I like its independence, that it is difficult to tell from the finished drawing what gestures were used to produce it.” Plastic being a non-absorbent surface, the ink tends to pool in somewhat unpredictable ways as it dries—which it does slowly, changing appearance along the way. Nonetheless, looking closely at these drawings, I’m astonished by Johns’s ability to control, with what seems to be remarkable precision, the outline of his shapes, which fit as neatly together as puzzle pieces, even as the ink within them swirls like an oil slick on a puddle. The uneven dilution of the ink throughout gives the impression of dappled light, which is heightened by the translucence of the support.
Johns plays with this effect across the four works, which range generally from dark to light as you read them from left to right. The first is darker overall; the second fades at right into the palest shade of gray; the third, by contrast, is edged with an almost fully diluted wash at the left; and the forth is a ghostly negative of the first—even the central form, usually the densest area of black ink, is mostly a pale wash. It’s an almost cinematic effect, which is emphasized by the sequential nature of the works, as if they could be frames in a film reel. Even the image—the solitary man on a bed in a shabby room—has something of a film-noir moodiness to it.
However, the progression of light also could speak to the passing of time. To me, this calls to mind another theme to which Johns has repeatedly returned, and which also happens to be divided into four segments: the seasons, that ultimate cycle constantly marked by differences within repetitions.
Jasper Johns: Regrets is on view in the Paul J. Sachs Drawings Galleries through September 1, 2014.