Seeing Skulls, Reading Palms: Jasper Johns in 2014

By | 1 March 2015

This readiness to accept what occurs in the work while it is being made has led critics, as Crichton points out, erroneously to align his practice with action painting – for of course, while he is ‘willing to permit what has happened in working to remain as a permanent feature of the work’.1 In fact, Crichton affirms, he ‘does not always do this’ and, indeed, regularly works to obliterate such accidents. The manifestation of any particular effect may be determined by chance but the prevailing repetition of this effect within the finished work is decided by choice. The ‘dribbles’ he frequently permits to extend below painted forms are usually interpreted as indexical traces which point to the pull exerted by gravity over his paintings. When first we notice them in the large oil, appearing to leak from a long milky stain, they look like the traces of workings of chance which the artist has permitted to remain. However this reading is destabilised by the appearance, across the room, in the smaller oil, of a transposed version. Here is another apparently ‘painted out’ oblong and, here again, are the drips which fringe it. Accidence, in repetition, starts to look like something else.2 The surprise-skull, however, he lets be, carrying it from this Study into every further elaboration. In Regrets, the man in the photo and initial drawings cedes centrality to the skull that grows ineffably from the void. This rehearsal of the passage from life into death is almost too blunt and, accordingly, not without irony.

The right and left sides of the Study for Regrets are drawn together by the addition of a numinous white border, which paints them (albeit faintly) into singularity. Conversely, its inherently bipartite nature is yet exaggerated by its material incoherence. With its right side executed in the open weave of polychromatic pencil and its left side painted, largely in shades of grey, with five patches of colour (blue, oxblood, maroon, gold) the two halves sit uneasily together. Between them, the cross-medially hinged skull and supporting edifice joining these versions partakes equally of both palettes. From this point onwards, the works in Regrets are always bipartite: split along this macabre axis into left and right (hereafter A and B) sides. In spite of the presence of the skull which unites them intrinsically and the border which works extrinsically towards the same end, the two sides of the work appear to pull against each other. Whereas A, in the Study, is soft-edged, the borders between its forms bleeding subtly into the surrounding shapes, B’s hard edges are the inked lines of the original photocopy. Accustomed to internal consistency within the frame, the eye seeks repeatedly to separate the sides, to read them as two discrete works. This impulse is, however, negated by the countermanding presence of a skull – a heavy symbol – which, in order to manifest, demands the unification.

The immense canvas of the large oil, Regrets (2013), was, Wright claims, completed alongside a much smaller pencil and acrylic drawing which was not shown in London.3 It establishes a number of the conventions around which later works in the sequence will turn. In repeatedly reworking the same image, Johns wants to teach us a lesson about how these ‘things the mind already knows’4 are ‘seen but not looked at’.5 Seeing the skull makes it peculiarly hard to look at the Regrets and not see it, or to see what surrounds it. Notwithstanding the evident textural variation between the A and B sides in each of these works, the viewer is enjoined to read them as spatially mirrorical counterparts of each other. We presume that A and B derive from the same base image. The realisation (whenever it occurs) that this presumption of basic symmetry is a false one sends us back to scrutinise – leading to recognitions of difference more and less apparent.6 Whereas the A and B sides in the Study for Regrets were quite evenly matched, with equal proportions of the photocopied photo-image showing on each side, all of the works including and subsequent to the large oil Regrets are unbalanced to permit a wider view of the room (including, for example, the end of the bedstead and both newspapers) in the B side.

Throughout the series, A and B are never as balanced as they at first appear. On the large oil (cat. 5), the A side is both richer in colour and more given to defining the edges of forms with a hard black outline. This outline recurs in the watercolour, where it is used to demarcate the jagged baseline and pedestal – effectively holding off or containing the void – and, by constructing the three-dimensional panel insert which invades the bedstead, introducing a new one.7 The B side of the watercolour is more delicately, precisely executed. Conversely, in the case of the smaller oil, it is the A side that is busier and more intricate.8 Once recognised, the extent of the dimensional imbalance is graphically legible in the asymmetry of the jagged baseline which occupies the lower eighth of the vertical axis. If, as Marjorie Perloff has observed, ‘(f)or Johns, as for Stein, composition must be decentered, non-hierarchical, each part of the canvas as important as every other part’,9 then the artist seems to want to make us struggle to see it in these terms. We must work against the eye’s shortcutting shortcomings if we are not to submit to the illusion of symmetry. The unthinking automatism of our perception is exposed. Baited to make a misjudgment, we are made to want to look harder.


Grey is, as Johns has repeatedly acknowledged, his favourite colour.10 In works including No (1961), Tennyson (1958) and Canvas (1956), among many others, he worked in a purely grey palette. In 2007-2008, the Art Institute of Chicago devoted an entire exhibition to these works.11 He is, at the same time, an artist whose oeuvre is lit up with colour: whether the vibratory interpenetrations of the cross-hatchings, the contra-linguistic explosions of False Start (1959) or the colour chart edging Eddingsville (1965). Regrets gives us both Johns. Or, rather, the series – like that mutely manipulative border in the Study – pushes them into a thrillingly dynamic interrelation. This uneasy conjunction takes many forms. In spite of the greyness which characterises the colourscape (though not the atmosphere) of the room overall, it is only the three works in Mylar on plastic and the first pencil sketch are truly monochromatic. Pseudo-grisailles are unsettled by highly coloured prior layers which, shimmer through – giving the lie to their apparent monochromality. Likewise, the translucent grey watercolour surface of Untitled (2013) is triggered into apparent infinite regress by a trichromatic jigsaw-like fragment-figure. Painted in the primary trio with which Johns has, since 1955’s Target with Four Faces, been associated – the red, yellow and blue which, in Lands End (1963), he stencilled onto the canvas – this idiosyncratic apparition makes the rest of the canvas appear to retreat from our gaze.12

Conversely, the largest of the drawings, (Regrets 2013) has the look of an extremely highly coloured (yellow, blue green and a pinkish red predominate) version of the ubiquitous image over which a heavy, grainy dust has settled; blurring, almost to the point of obliterating, the multicoloured intricacy beneath.13 Through a deep soot, we perceive suppressed memories of the colour, detail and specificity of an image which, by virtue of its finely worked surface, looks almost woven. Closer inspection reveals that the struggle has not yet been resolved, as some fresher, unadumbrated blobs and flecks of paint sit proud on top of all the rest. Myriad processes of addition and subtraction sum to produce a vibratory hum. The hierarchical relation between these two opposing forces – the will to monochromality and the will to colour – remains constantly in contention throughout this series. Suppositions made as to the order in which layers were completed prove vulnerable to revision. The borders between decisions revised and outcomes arrived at are never wholly clear.

  1. Crichton, 30-31.
  2. At the base of the A side, a further, much more measured fringe of dribbles extends from the verticals of the grid which overlays all of the void section of this work to run over an otherwise bare sliver of canvas.
  3. Untitled (2013) Pencil and acrylic on paper (38.1 x 49.5cm).
  4. This is the phrase Johns famously used to explain his use of the flag and target as designs which gave him ‘room to work on other levels’. See Leo Steinberg, ‘Jasper Johns: The First Seven Years of His Art’ (1962), in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, 31.
  5. Johns, quoted in Walter Hopps, ‘An Interview with Jasper Johns’s, Artforum 3 March 1965, 34.
  6. I am grateful, in this respect, to the students of the Beckett and Aesthetics course 2014-2015 at Goldsmiths College, London, whose vivid curiosity induced me to pay more attention to Johns’ offsetting of skull-hinge in these works.
  7. Untitled (2013) Watercolour on paper (56.5 x 78.7cm). In the same watercolour, emptinesses perform the same function, with forms appearing to be contained not by lines but by the opposing forces of vacuum as highly pressurised interstitial spaces between patches of watercolour appear to hold them in otherwise uncontained place.
  8. Regrets (2013) Oil on canvas (127 x 182.9cm).
  9. Marjorie Perloff, ‘Watchman, Spy, and Dead Man: Johns, O’Hara, Cage and the “Aesthetic of Indifference”‘, Modernism / Modernity, 8.2 (2001): 197-223.
  10. Crichton, 34.
  11. Jasper Johns’s Gray was at the Art Institute of Chicago from November 3, 2007–January 6, 2008.
  12. This curious assertion of relativity acquires an added significance in light of the artist’s claim that, as he worked on one of the coloured numbers paintings, he lost his colour vision: ‘When I worked on it for longer than a minute, the entire painting would turn gray to me. I couldn’t see any of the colors, and I would have to stop.’ (qtd. Crichton 40).
  13. Regrets (2013) Charcoal, watercolour and pastel on paper (80 x 119.1cm).
This entry was posted in ESSAYS and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work:

  • No Related Posts Found