Seeing Skulls, Reading Palms: Jasper Johns in 2014

By | 1 March 2015

Jasper Johns’s Regrets is at the Courtauld from September 12th-December 14th. Before that (March 15th-September 1st), it was at MoMA. A significant portion of its contents are due to return to New York, but for now, it’s in the rather more incongruous and maybe more productively peculiar setting of the Courtauld: set in the vaguely lobby-like space that communicates between the museum’s marble spine/stairs and its permanent collection of Impressionism and its hereafters. Stacking its collection chronologically from the ground floor up, the museum invites us to follow a (peda)logical course. According to the route laid out, we move from ‘Medieval to Renaissance’ on the ground floor, ‘Renaissance to Impressionism’ on the first, and finish in ‘Impressionism to 20th Century’ on the second floor. The siting of this excitingly recent series by a painter whose work has had such a singular impact on the art world in the second half of that century incites visitors to perform a one-room experiment in art-historical time-travel. By positioning Regrets as an anachronistic hinge between the first and second floors, it deflects us from this established sequence. Projected briefly into the 21st century, we look upon modernism’s legacies, its aftermaths and its aftershocks, before being sent back to realign ourselves with the teleological track of 20th-century art. We rejoin the tour, but with new eyes. We have seen the future and it is both as prophesied by that art-historical narrative – here are abstraction, flatness, repetition, irony and self-referentiality – and utterly, unanticipatedly arresting.


Jasper Johns has frequently affirmed that he has a particular interest in the mechanism of sight. He says: ‘I am interested in the idea of sight, in the use of the eye. I am interested in how we see and why we see the way we do.’1

Because he makes such statements, and because they cohere with what can be observed in his work, critics describe him as an artist for whom perception is central. Anticipating the charge inevitably solicited by a claim of such quasi-universal applicability, Michael Crichton acknowledges that, indeed, all painters are concerned with perception, ‘just as all racing drivers are concerned engine mechanics.’ However, he goes, on, ‘with Johns, the issues of perception – of what you see, and why, and how you decide what you are looking at – are not merely questions to be decided in order to produce some final effect’.2 Though Crichton’s insights arrive to us via a monograph published in 1977, nineteen years after Johns’s first solo exhibition but before the Seasons series of 1985, before the Catenary works which preoccupied him from 1997-2003, before Bushbaby (2003-2006) or the Pyre (2003), his old assertion is amply borne out by the all-new work of Regrets (2012-2014). However, this series understands seeing not as a secondary response to what is made, but as the process by which further making becomes possible. Johns famously limits himself to a single focus at a time, claiming that he must first learn what he can from the completed work, before he moves on to make something new. 3 His is a profoundly auto-didactic practice. He learns not alone by himself but from himself. Or, rather, from what he sees himself make, for, as the artist so neatly puts it: ‘The work I’ve done is not me’.4 Johns sees, and so makes, and then sees what he has made and so makes again, and sees what that is – what happens in the making and what ultimately is made – and this incites him again to make, so that he might again see.

Regrets makes us see the same thing made over and over. For Johns, repetition is both paramount and, paradoxically, an impossibility.5 A ten-part series deriving from a single (though soon doubled) image, Regrets is all about repetition, as well as about seeing. At once an exploration and an elaboration of that source image, what is most seductive about this series is the apparently infinite degree of variation – of medium, of effect, of tone, of colour, of texture, of affect – between its component-parts. As Roberta Bernstein writes, ‘concentrated observation’ of Johns’ work frequently ‘reveals substantive differences between images that at first look alike’.6 Looking at Regrets, we never see the same thing twice. Or if we do, we are not looking hard enough, and looking hard is what Johns demands of us. Many of his most famous works pivot on this compulsion: the artist’s invitation to lead us to look harder, to see better, to push beyond the automatic shortcutting that occurs when the eye receives an image that the brain designates as familiar. His lesson, delivered by works incrementally cleared of content by their reiteration of that same content, encourage us to develop a Lamarckian variant of the hyperacuity which he so famously enjoyed in youth – the diminishing of which, in age, to merely mortal levels, troubles him greatly.

Johns’s ouroborotic series-as-tutorial suggests new ways to think about found material, iterability, legibility and abstraction. His lesson of a seeing which instigates thinking (about seeing) is one which can be extracted from the site of its enactment and extrapolated onto the museum’s – and, accordingly, art’s – surrounding context. Though the hanging of Regrets may indeed, after all, have been decreed only by the constraints concomitant with the accommodation of a small temporary exhibition alongside permanent collections, then this really is a most propitious sort of installation according to the laws of chance. If, as Steinberg writes, ‘Seeing’ in the consumption of Johns’s work ‘becomes thinking’,7 then the model of hard looking Johns demands should ultimately lead to hard thinking. Owing to the inherently auto-referential nature of Johns’s practice, this is not the first time that his work has had the air of a career-retrospective. However, coming as it does at this late point in his life and, by virtue of its title and symbolic content, invoking mortal endings, the incorporation of tropes into Regrets from across his career inevitably inspires the casting of glances back over the span of Jasper Johns’s long art-making life.8 The approach taken by this essay will combine very close reading of Regrets with some attempt to situate this series in relation to his wider oeuvre. I will look hard at his most recent work, in the hope that, in so doing, thinking might transpire.


An initial glance into the exhibition space confirms that all of the works in this series are based on the same image. Johns has, of course, previously made repeated use of a single source; serial iterations of targets, numbers, alphabets and flags made him famous. The circumstances of his encounters with a flagstone pattern glimpsed on a Harlem wall and later incorporated into myriad works, the cross-hatching design he borrowed, in the 1970s, from an oncoming car, have generated copious critical commentary. The artist himself has explained at length his motivation for these appropriative fixations. Johns says: ‘what’s interesting to me is the fact that it isn’t designed, but taken. It’s not mine’.9

What Johns took from elsewhere for this series is a photograph of Lucian Freud, taken in London by the British photographer John Deakin, in or around 1964.10 The original gelatin silver-print is held within the collection of the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin – the home, too, of Francis Bacon’s meticulously reconstructed studio.11 The ocular encounter which instigated Regrets was not that between the artist and this photograph. It was not until he saw it installed in MoMA’s original hanging of the show that Johns shared a physical space with that artefact. Instead, the instant of taking occurred when Johns came across a full-size reproduction of the image in Christies’s catalogue to the sale of Francis Bacon’s Study for Self-Portrait (1964). We know that this sale was scheduled for 27 June 27 2012, and that Johns received this catalogue some time in advance of that date. Remediation is, from the outset, at the core of this show. As Barnaby Wright observes in his essay for the Courtauld’s catalogue, Bacon had in fact commissioned Deakin to ‘take’ these posed photographs of Freud.12 Later, by way of an inter-artist body-swap, Bacon would use them as source materials for various self-portraits and the triptych, Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969), which last year became the most expensive contemporary artwork ever sold at auction. From the first, Deakin’s photo represented what Wright describes as ‘a cocktail of artistic role-playing – Freud as artist turned Sickertian model for Deakin, a commissioned photographer, to shoot in order to produce prints which Bacon will physically manipulate and eventually paint as a fusion – a splicing – of his own facial features with Freud’s body’.13 Its art-historical pedigree is inarguable. Nonetheless, Johns refutes, with studied vagueness, any claims that his interest in the image derives from its status as a palimpsest of painterly and photographic allusions. Johns says: ‘It was a sale of – who’s the other artist? Francis Bacon.’14

But Johns is an artist who is always working out of and in relation to his art-historical and art world context. He may claim that he himself forgets, in the process, the origins of the images he appropriates, but he knows this audience (no more so than his critics) will not. Via the series’ repetitions, and its (d)evolutions towards (but never altogether into) abstraction, Bacon, Freud and Deakin, like all of the more concrete content of the photo, incrementally dissolve – only to recur again (and again). However, and in spite of all that Johns does to Deakin’s photograph, the stain of biography/ the human, in Regrets, is never quite entirely washed out.

My reference above to the Hugh Lane’s reconstruction of Bacon’s studio is not, or not alone a sly plug for a small and often-overlooked Irish institution. Anyone who has visited that installation, a cave in which Bacon’s papers are displayed posthumously as they were used in life – layered in a sort of fermenting compost of intervened upon and manipulated images from an incredibly diverse range of sources – will not be surprised to discover that Deakin’s photograph was not meticulously preserved by the artist who had ordered its production. Even when Wright notes that, ‘Bacon would often deliberately alter his photographic source material by folding, tearing and creasing it. Such a photo would likely then suffer further injuries as it was picked up, cast aside and splashed with paint whilst Bacon worked on a canvas’,15 he rather underplays the extravagant disorder of that paper stew. For Johns, the object of interest is not some imagined pristine copy of the photo which we can imagine to have been printed from the same negative but destined for some other, less chaotic environment. Instead, what he ‘takes’ is manifestly the multiply damaged, crumpled, streaked and splattered print as it was reproduced, unfiltered and unfixed, by Christies. It is, moreover, the image as it was framed in that catalogue: set quite theatrically against a black background. Along with the creases and paperclips which serve as the traces of Bacon’s re-shaping of the photo to his own purposes, Johns treats the exposed black mount representing the spaces where the photo is not – for, though the uppermost edge is very almost complete (barring a minor dog-ear) all three of the other sides to this would-be square photograph are incomplete. The blackness which replaces and thus supplants these emptinesses around the jagged edges – the blackness which I will term the void-space – becomes conceptually and spatial central to Regrets.

In 1981, Johns made the cross-hatched abstract painting Between the Clock and the Bed in response to Edward Munch’s Self-portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed (1940-43). Portraying the artist ‘trapped between the inexorable forces of time and his probable deathbed’, Munch’s painting depicts a balding man standing rigidly, in a tightly-panelled space between looming grandfather clock and the bed of the title.16 The latter article is adorned with a patterned coverlet which anticipates, as Johns recognised, the cross-hatch design he had himself adopted in his earlier work. The thematic resonances between Munch’s portrait of the artist and Deakin’s one of Freud are manifold and have already elicited critical attention. Asked, earlier this year, to comment upon this connection, Johns was typically glib. Johns says: ‘As you have made the relationship, so have I’.17

Both works inevitably invoke meditations on mortality. Both depict artists in the solitary intimacy of their bedroom. The cross-hatched pattern of the bedspread which caught Johns’ attention in the ‘80s has its counter in the diamond-patterned covering which he reproduces in varying degrees of detail, in Regrets. Likewise, just as the former design was already a familiar feature in Johns’s back-catalogue, the diamond pattern has been a highly visible trope in his paintings of more recent decades. I will return, presently, to the harlequin figure to which those diamonds are widely presumed to refer. Whereas Munch stands awkwardly, uncomfortably upright, Freud appears to collapse in upon himself. With one hand covering his face and the other clasping a crossed leg, he shields himself from the world, from identification, and/or from the camera. Of his face we see very little; his hair, too, (bushy where Munch’s is conspicuously scant) appears to be doing its best to provide further cover. Neither posture bodes well for the mind which has thus arranged the body. Or it would – were it not for our awareness that this photograph, no less so than Munch’s painting, has been deliberately staged. Nor is this the first time that Johns has taken the artist – a recognisable, named, ‘other’ artist – as the (or more often a) subject in his work.18 However, before we lose ourselves in the seductions of such details, it bears overstating that Johns’ attraction to specific images is reportedly determined much less by what they connote, than by their capacity for emptiness. His is a practice in thrall to the possibility that meaning might be made into a transparent carrier for form. And yet, this claim, so often repeated, never quite rests flat in Johns’ work, but is agitated, incessantly, by ripples of antithetical sentiment. A similarly irreconcilable tension is, as I hope to demonstrate, dramatised within Regrets.

  1. Gunnar Jespersen, ‘Møde med Jasper Johns’, Berlingske Tidende (Copenhagen) February 23, 1969, 14, trans. in Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, ed. Kirk Varnedoe, comp. Christel Hollevoet (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1996), 136.
  2. Michael Crichton, Jasper Johns (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977), 25.
  3. Crichton, 18.
  4. Jasper Johns, ‘I have attempted to develop my thinking in such a way that the work I’ve done is not me.’ by Vivien Raynor, Artnews 72.3 (March 1973): 21-22, excerpted in Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, 145.
  5. Crichton relates an anecdote which highlights Johns’ attempt to buy Tennyson back from a collector who could not understand why he would not just re-paint it (19).
  6. Roberta Bernstein, ‘Numbers’, in Jasper Johns: Seeing with the Mind’s Eye, ed. Gary Garrels (San Francisco Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 2012), 55.
  7. Leo Steinberg, Jasper Johns (New York: Wittenborn, 1963), repr. in Other Criteria (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 14.
  8. Johns is, at the time of writing, 84 years old, and first showed his work (Green Flag, at a group show in the Jewish Museum) in 1955.
  9. qtd. Crichton 55.
  10. John Deakin, Photograph of Lucian Freud (c.1964) Gelatin silver print with paper clips, 32.3 x 32.3cm.
  11. Should justification be required for the publication of this essay on an American artist within a special edition on British and Irish poetry, this fact is offered as a weak palliative.
  12. Bacon was famously antipathetic to using life models, relying instead on photographs.
  13. Barnaby Wright, ‘Jasper Johns – Regrets‘, in Jasper Johns: Regrets (London: The Courtauld Gallery), 20.
  14. Jasper Johns, qtd. Julie L. Belcove, ‘Regrets belong to everybody, don’t they?’, Financial Times: FT Magazine, February 14, 2014.
  15. Wright, 8.
  16. Mark Rosenthal, ‘The Crosshatch Series’, in Jasper Johns: Seeing with the Mind’s Eye, 123.
  17. Melissa Harris, ‘The More Things Change: 
An Interview with Jasper Johns’ May 30th, 2014
  18. See, for example, Johns’ In Memory of My Feelings-Frank O’Hara (1961), Periscope (Hart Crane) (1963).
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