Seeing Skulls, Reading Palms: Jasper Johns in 2014

By | 1 March 2015

Lamenting that his recollection of a flagstone pattern he had seen only once could never match the accuracy of direct image transfer, Johns says: ‘If I could have traced it I would have felt secure that I had it right’.1 With Deakin’s photograph, Johns did exactly that. He traced it and then photocopied his perfect copy. Because the photocopier does not differentiate between, say, the whiteness of Freud’s shirtsleeve and an equally bright patch where rough treatment has caused the image surface to disclose its papery backing, this photocopy is much more visually complex than Deakin’s original photograph. Reading light and dark without prejudice, the photocopier collapses the distinction between image and support – making it an ideal collaborator in Johns’ ongoing exploration of the relation between figure and ground. The photocopier is also insensible to issues of intentionality. Its mechanism is as literal, as lacking in investment and as devoid of subjectivity as Johns (at least in his earlier career) strove to be. As materially astute readers of the photograph, we automatically edit out all of the noise: the visual distortion produced by physical damage and the splashed and splotched multicoloured (red, pink, yellow, blue, grey and green) interjections onto its silverprint surface. Our eyes clean it up, replacing the dilapidated extant object with a perfect version projected forward from its presumed past. By deploying the photocopier as his machinic assistant, Johns effectively exempts himself from the effort of having to keep resisting this automatic ocular reprocessing. He overrides the eye’s internal will to photoshop. Taking this photocopy as his new source text, Johns’ work would concentrate on that re-remediated image for eighteen months. The results are Regrets.

Once he had traced and photocopied the image, he coloured it in. Staying faithfully inside the lines, his colouring-in is as obsessive and as that of the most conscientious child in colour-by-numbers art class. Making sure, as he has often done before, that none of his jaggedly tesselated tiles abut another of the same colour, he uses contrasting colours to mark separations between discrete objects (making the end of a trouser leg yellow and the foot emerging from it blue), to translate variations between areas of light and shade in the image carried by the photograph and to inscribe onto the image the marks made by material damage to it. On first encounter, I was suspicious of this process. However, what registers initially as the arbitrary fractalisation of form through variegation of colour, reveals itself, upon closer scrutiny of the lines running across the photograph, to be the product, in fact, of a meticulous attention to what really is ‘there’. His rendering is true to the contemporary material truth of the object. He confronts us with an intricacy that is immanent. Johns says: ‘Generally, I am opposed to painting which is concerned with conceptions of simplicity. Everything looks very busy to me’.2

Observing how – even before he commences the cross-media investigations of the series proper – Johns reprocesses the reasonably simple portrait of a man on a bed into an infinitely more complex artefact transmits to his audience the complexity that is, for the artist, always there. Like those museums of natural history that promise to grant, via customised lenses, a momentarily nauseating experience of seeing the world through the multifaceted eye of a fly, Regrets complicates our looking. It grants us an equally disorientating insight into the tumult of the artist’s busy perception.


The London configuration of Regrets comprises three paintings, six drawings and the hybrid work, Study for Regrets.3 Johns says: ‘I like to repeat an image in another medium to observe the play between the two’.4

That play is, in this series, expanded to encompass oil, watercolour, pencil, acrylic, ink, pastel and charcoal, deployed in multifarious ways on paper, canvas and plastic. The exact order in which these works were completed cannot be established but we do know that, as per Johns’s usual working method, the traditional relationship between drawings, as preparatory, and paintings, as culminatory, does not hold.5 Though it is somewhat counterintuitive not to read the giant (170.2 x 243.8cm) oil on canvas that dominates the space as something of a last, or at least defining word on the series,6 Wright’s speculative chronology places this work towards the beginning of the production sequence – coming only after the two shaded drawings (one monochrome and one in colour), and immediately subsequent to the Study for Regrets (2012). This Study incorporates the colour-by-numbers photocopy and is the first piece in the sequence to involve bilateral mirroring.7 The degree to which this mirroring is actual is a vexed issue, to which I will return.

The first work to be completed post-photocopying is a reasonably loose and sketchy monochrome drawing in pencil on paper.8 It reproduces the photocopied image, with the wryly interrogative annotation, ‘Goya? Bats? Dreams?’: a reference to Goya’s regularly riffed-upon etching, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1799). The connection Johns postulates is neither startling nor ambiguous. Innumerable antecedents exist for, and are invoked by, Deakin’s composition. The anguished acts of contemplation indulged in or suffered by creative men in solitude have ever been pictured thus.9 Although this first drawing is in many respects much less detailed than later iterations of the image would be – lacking definition in, for example, the pattern of the bedspread, or the layout of the newspapers which litter the floor – it does yet acknowledge certain of the marks which derive from the photocopier’s auto-formalist translations of material degradation. While the shading pencil picks out only some of the more obvious abrasions, fold-lines and splatters, it does serve to demonstrate the artist’s attention from the outset to working with the source as reproduced and consequently remediated.

The second drawing, however, does something much stranger with that same source-code. This is where the mirroring begins. Whereas all subsequent works in the series would reproduce the scanned image on the right-side, with a mirror-image, and so reversed copy of the same image on the left, the coloured drawing, Untitled (2012) projects the mirrored version back onto its origin.10 This superimposition makes of the figure a chimerical mirage, hazy with extra limbs and features. Now, Freud holds his heads in two of his four hands and the bedstead extends to both right and left behind him. Doubled, the greyed-out voidspace creeps up the right edge just as it does, in every other instance, on the left – making the figure (doubly) at the centre of the image appear as though lit up by a beam of kaleidoscopic light. Johns never again reprises this ostensibly single, secretly double image, but the figure at its centre does undergo further, still less obvious bodily modifications. Later versions will see the figure made one with a flattened, jigsaw-like space in which the human is squashed almost to abstraction. If this drawing, as is suggested by the penciled note it bears, is still, for Johns, an image of Lucian Freud, such specificity is abraded by all of the versions which succeed it. And yet, as with his flags, we cannot – for all our focus on form – forget the political and semiotic significance of stars and stripes. Likewise, the man-made-pattern in Regrets carries the recollection of his memories. If it is not always Freud, then it is always a painter, or at least an artist, and certainly a man – even if (and this is not, I think, immaterial) a surrogate from the start.

It was, Wright surmises, directly after he had completed these two initial drawings that Johns completed the Study for Regrets. Mounting the multicoloured photocopy on the right side of a larger page, he produced a mirrored, reversed copy of the image, in acrylic and watercolour, on the left hand side of the page. In the hinge of what was now a cross-media mirror, the form of a skull appeared. Everything around it recedes. Dwarfing the (skin and hair-wrapped) skulls/man’s heads already visible on either side of the image by a scale of at least 5:1, and mounted on a green (pencil) and ochre (paint) pedestal, this self-actualising skull provided the motive force for the series that followed. ‘Events’, Johns says, ‘occur without permission’.11

Whereas, in the case of Weeping Women (1975), Johns delivered a purely abstract work whose title encourages us to will a human figure into appearing, in Regrets we witness the dissolution of the once carnal into formal abstraction.12 The human figure which had, in the Target with Four Faces (1955) been rendered into a row of disarticulated, cast body parts, is further de-fleshed and de-reified as it becomes pattern. Unlike the memento mori and Vanitas paintings to which this apparition immediately directs/propels us, Johns’s skull-by-chance inhabits an alternative plane to that occupied by the seated figures who appear, now, to regard it. It is, moreover, and in contradistinction to the obliquely foreshortened anamorphic skull haunting Holbein’s The Ambassadors, clearly and constantly visible. If The Ambassadors is a painting of Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve which is haunted by the premonition of a skull, then Regrets is a series of semi-abstract paintings of skulls which are haunted by a more and less legible recently (until 2011) living man. Notwithstanding the accident of its arrival, and throughout the various operations subsequently performed upon this new, bilateral and skullcentric source-image, the skull never vanishes. Says Johns:

‘There are no accidents in my work. It sometimes happens that something unexpected occurs – the paint may run – but then I see that it has happened, and I have the choice to paint it again or not. And if I don’t, then the appearance of that element in the painting is no accident’.13

  1. qtd. Crichton 55.
  2. Jasper Johns, ‘Artist’s Statement’, in Sixteen Americans, ed. Dorothy C. Miller (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1959, 22, reprinted in Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, 19.
  3. Study for Regrets (2012) Acrylic, photocopy collage, coloured pencil, ink and watercolour on paper (28.9 x 45.1 cm).
  4. Christian Geelhaar, ‘Interview with Jasper Johns’, in Jasper Johns: Working Proofs (Basel: Kunstmuseum Basel, 1979), reprinted in Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, 191.
  5. As he admitted in an interview with Nan Rosenthal and Ruth E. Fine, painting serves for him the function ordinarily ascribed to drawing. See ‘Interview with Jasper Johns’, in The Drawing of Jasper Johns, by Nan Rosenthal and Ruth E. Fine (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1990), 72.
  6. Regrets (2013) Oil on canvas, (170.2 x 243.8 cm).
  7. Another drawing in pencil and acrylic, Untitled (2013), though not shown in London, is thought to have been completed concurrently with this monumental work.
  8. Untitled (2012) Pencil on paper (50.2 x 36.5cm).
  9. Wright, in his catalogue, proffers the examples of Rodin’s The Thinker, 1880-1904, to Dürer’s engraving, Melancholia, 1514 (Wright 19). Numerous other visual analogues suggest themselves. Women are, alas, less often depicted doing such very serious thinking.
  10. Untitled (2012) Watercolour and pencil on paper (57.5 x 39.4cm).
  11. Jasper Johns, Sketchbook notes: Book B (c.1979), reprinted in Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, 68.
  12. This process develops an especial significance as it acts upon Freud- the painter famous the extraordinarily fleshly embodiment of his figures.
  13. Crichton, 47.
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