Jasper Johns must have a wicked career retrospective installed in his head. That seems like the only explanation as to why “Jasper Johns: Variations on a Theme” doesn’t necessarily make the viewer hungry for some of the Augusta, Ga.-born artist’s original paintings and sculptures. The current show at the Phillips Collection, organized by Assistant Curator Renée Maurer and featuring 100 prints from five decades, not only feels complete without including a single major work by Johns, but also offers fresh insight into how one might reconcile the big split that occurred in Johns’ work in the 1980s. In that decade, the reticent creator of mute objects and seductive surfaces—flags, targets, and stenciled numbers rendered in translucent, skin-like encaustic—transformed himself into a self-referential remix artist, making paintings that look like bulletin boards pinned with floor plans for old family homes, tracings from 16th century altarpieces, and his own silhouette. Seeing how Johns has consistently revisited, inverted, and reprocessed his expanding mental storehouse of motifs is downright revelatory, and brings an unexpected unity to his oeuvre.
For some artists, print shows can feel a bit like gatherings of ghosts. In the print studio, recognizable works of art can get rehashed to be made available in editions for the benefit of less moneyed collectors. Or less moneyed artists: When Tatyana Grossman wrote Johns inviting him to create his first lithographs with her shop, Universal Limited Art Editions , painter Larry Rivers encouraged him to accept the offer, saying that, in his own experience, “prints helped pay the rent.” The uninitiated might expect a show of Johns’ prints to be the artistic equivalent of a book of canceled checks.
But Johns is not simply making bank on the printing press. His engagement with printmaking since the 1960s has been substantial, if not groundbreaking. He has embraced and mastered a wide range of techniques and materials, from traditional lithography, intaglio, and screenprinting to the creation of embossed lead reliefs. “I like to repeat an image in another medium,” Johns once said, “to observe the play between the two: the image and the medium.” Johns is a master at turning a borrowed image or a veiled reference inside-out, and imposing distance through layers of time-consuming process and obfuscation—not unlike like the hard work of generating multiple states in the print studio.
The show is arranged more or less chronologically, starting with Johns’ very first experiments drawing on lithography stones at ULAE in 1960, and ending with his “Shrinky Dink” etchings produced just last year. In the show’s first room, “Targets” and “Flags,” both from 1968, repeat Johns’ signature motifs from the 1950s, but with a cheeky difference: For “Flags,” Johns presents one American flag in the top half of the composition rendered in complementary colors—orange, green, and black—and another truncated in the lower half, in washed-out shades of gray. Focusing for awhile on a dot placed in the center of the upper flag produces a negative mental after-image; looking down at the grey flag below, viewers will see a ghostly red, white, and blue stars-and-stripes floating in front of it. This is, more or less, a faithful version of an oil painting Johns created three years earlier, but the op-art effect actually makes more sense in a print: All three flags here, after all, are copies—two printed on paper; one printed directly on the viewer’s retina.
Printmaking brings out the inner trickster in Johns, or perhaps the inner editorial cartoonist. Take the embossed lead pieces in the show’s second room: “The Critic Smiles” (1969), for example, is a funerary-looking, 23-by-17-inch grey slab on which a toothbrush appears to rest. A simple tin-leafed horizontal band indicates the handle; where the bristles ought to be, disturbingly, is a row of cast gold teeth.
Johns explained this as a statement about the critic’s “cleansing police action” in society. Certainly Johns positioned himself as a target to be “cleansed,” making works that rebutted the dominant Abstract Expressionist vocabulary of the 1950s. AbEx paintings were supposed to be spontaneous expressions of the artist’s own subjectivity; Johns hid his inner life behind his methodically built-up waxen images—“things the mind already knows,” as the artist described them. AbExers treated the canvas as an arena in which to act; Johns treated it as a surface on which to assemble. If Johns felt abused by the critics, he had to know he’d signed up for it.
But with the disembodied gold teeth and ashen palette, one thinks less of art criticism and more of something truly disturbing—say, the Holocaust. Perhaps Johns was registering years spent not just as an artistic misfit but as a total outsider—a gay Southerner—circulating within the macho swagger of Abstract Expressionism in New York; the outsized influence of ideologically locked-in critics like Clement Greenberg; and the larger backdrop of the Red Scare and the House Un-American Activities Committee. The “critic,” then, is not merely someone making determinations of aesthetic value, but of one’s fitness to be a part of society, period. Whatever Johns’ reputation at the time as a maker of impersonal puzzles, this piece feels personal, acerbic, and ugly.
Three cases in the show’s fourth room hold “1st Etchings,” a portfolio Johns created as one of the first artists to use ULAE’s new intaglio facilities in 1968. In these prints, Johns describes his painted cast sculptures of commonplace objects like beer cans and paint brushes. The sculptures seem designed to limit any possible judgments of personal taste or expression; the drawings, meanwhile, feature a loose, meandering, free-flowing line uncharacteristic of Johns, but vaguely reminiscent late Picasso. These fluid, carefree studies are paired with much smaller photo engravings—murky little black and white thumbnails floating in seas of negative space. The spontaneous drawings and tiny, barely legible photos work against one another, offering contradictory or incomplete cues with which the viewer must try to mentally reconstruct sculptures originally characterized by their obtuse-seeming literalness. It’s a strange exercise.
“Fool’s House” (1972) is another copy that inverts the premise of the work on which it’s based. The original “Fool’s House,” made a decade earlier, is a painting with physical objects attached—objects that have actually produced some of the painted marks on the canvas. The bristles of a broom suspended in the center of the piece are caked in grey paint; those bristles were evidently scrubbed against the canvas, producing marbled arcs. In the print version, Johns indulges in code-switching, representing the broom with a large photographic cut-out and other elements with loose contour drawings, silhouettes, and stenciled or hand-written words. The original, intensely tactile piece that indicates the method of its own creation is suddenly a collection of incompatible simulacra and notations.
But then, some would have it, Johns lost his cool. “In my early work,” Johns said, “I tried to hide my personality, my psychological state, my emotions…but eventually it seemed like a losing battle. Finally one must simply drop the reserve.” He said this in relation to his “Seasons” series, which not only reads like a compendium of the artist’s life and interests, but also contains sexually charged allusions to paintings by Pablo Picasso. “The Seasons (Summer)” (1987) juxtaposes a silhouetted image of the artist himself with elements of Picasso’s 1936 painting, “Minotaur Moving His House” (1936). The mythic minotaur is regarded as a sign of male potency and creative power; in many of Picasso’s paintings from the 1930s, this creature tussles with the horse, who inevitably is cast in a submissive role. In “Summer,” Johns replaces the horse with a seahorse, which exhibits an unusual role reversal in the animal kingdom: Male seahorses carry the eggs of their mates in an abdominal pouch. Here we see Johns acknowledging his modernist forebears, musing on his own sexual identity, and, possibly, clearing a space in the pantheon for himself.
This would all seem like a splintering of Johns’ resolve to make impersonal puzzles and inscrutable objects—if not for the fact that his playfulness, self-referentiality, and appetite for stylistic mashups had been evident in his print work for two decades prior. Johns in print is arguably a more relaxed, multivalent artist.
In the most recent prints—his “Shrinky Dink” series from 2011—one persistent presence is Marcel Duchamp, appearing both as a silhouette and in tracings from one of his early, quasifuturist “Bride” paintings. Duchamp, undeniably, was a powerful influence on Johns. In 1958, the year of Johns’ first solo show at Leo Castelli Gallery, the artist received Duchamp’s “Box in a Valise” as a gift from two collectors. “Box in a Valise” is a set of miniature reproductions of and notations on nearly every major work Duchamp produced—a personal, portable museum. Walking through the Phillips, seeing the various fragments and reinterpretations of Johns’s entire body of work, one can’t help but feel one is walking through the artist’s own, much larger “Box in Valise”—as if Johns’ print catalog is a lens through which the artist surveys his own career and can clearly see himself.