Seeing Skulls, Reading Palms: Jasper Johns in 2014

By | 1 March 2015

Further to the chance apparition of the skull, in two of the pieces – one a watercolour, the other an oil – the profile of a new, illuminated figure materialises.1 With Deakin’s composition, by now, long left behind, we might mistakenly interpret this new appearance as a re-emergence – as the photo-figure’s polychromatic auto-extrication from the surrounding greyness in which it has become so utterly, flatly, imbricated. But consultation with the photograph confirms that, though the profile in part maps on to that of Freud, it derives its lower sections from forms originally belonging to the cover of the bed. If this is a new human subject, then it is a man formed half of flesh and half of bed linen. Perhaps it has been summoned by a note in the artist’s sketchbook in which Johns says:

One thing made of another 
One thing used as another. 
an arrogant object2

In a further mutation, the undulating forms of its fingers have undergone a sort of reassignment of purpose to form the unobstructed outline (nose, mouth and chin) of a face in profile. In each case, this new figure is executed in a Johnsian red-yellow-blue palette. There is, furthermore, something of the harlequin (a major component of both the Catenary and Bushbaby series) in the abutting jags of contrasting colour of which it is composed. Finding an echo, however faint, of that harlequin figure fortifies the sense of this series as a composite retrospective of the artist’s work, channeled via a single image. But this echo is amplified in the context of John Yau’s tracing of Johns’s attachment to this figure through Picasso and via the diamond bedpattern in Munch’s aforementioned Between the Clock and the Bed. The harlequin is, as Yau points out, associated with the capacity to take on other forms.3 Furthermore, as Gary Garrels notes, the harlequin has long been considered, ‘within Western art as an alter ego for the artist’.4 The new figure which appears in these works is, then, a shapeshifter who takes the place of, and yet evokes, in memoriam, the artist figure that was Lucian Freud (and, through him, Francis Bacon). It also, for all of these reasons, evokes Jasper Johns himself.

These two works are further linked by the fact that they share another of Johns’s compositional tics. Both contain, to the right of their B side, a rectangular panel insert of the sort the artist first used in his Grey Rectangle of 1957; since then, he has made frequent recourse to this device. In the watercolour, this panel is hard-edged and defined with a double line that sets it apart from the soft forms around it, and introduces a contained suggestion of three-dimensionality into the two-dimensional space of the composition. In the oil, a milky film fills the rectilinear form; through its windowlike frame, we can make out the outline of the bedstead. This simple geometric interjection looks more curious once we attend to the exact nature of what can be seen inside it. The view it shows to the bedstead is too clear. Like the mirror in which the customer in Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère disappears, this painted glass fails to deliver the anticipated image. Freud’s arm, which, in the photocopy, partially occludes some of the iron bars, fails to show up in the rectangle’s frame. Once shorn of this limb, the body to which it belongs, already flatly continuous with its context, threatens entirely to deliquesce. Perhaps this is just as well, as other parts of the first, Freudian figure have already, as described above, been re-deployed to form the new one. The appearance of that Johnsian panel assists in invoking the jigsawed figure. By embedding this funhouse mirror/false window in the canvas, Johns gleefully points up the mirror-mischief everywhere apparent.

The posture of this crypto-figure – which exists singly in a mirrored context – constitutes a potentially articulate re-orientation of the figure within the space it now shares with the skull. Whereas the flattened figure of the mirror-works address the skull (and, in the act, the audience/fourth wall) at an angle – though both from behind the screen of splayed fingers – this new figure sits inside the painting, but at a perfect right angle to the image. More importantly, it looks directly onto the macabre edifice at its centre. If its predecessor didn’t know where to (not quite) look, this figure directly addresses the immense skull. Man, in time, swivels towards his mortality. The harlequin-jigsaw-figure looks at a skull that looks at us – for, indeed, the placement of the eye-sockets and the height at which these works are hung means that these eyeless holes address us at our eye-level. This positional appeal for eye contact is made fortified by the fact that these sockets undergo an extraordinary range of metamorphoses over the course of the series. Being, in each iteration, more or less opaque, more (in the small oil Regrets) and less (in the large oil Regrets) different from each other and, in one of the Mylar works, Untitled (2013, cat.12), losing their contours almost entirely, they are always worth looking at.


The series’s title, Regrets, first appears in the Study and, as Wright and others point out, was made by Johns with a rubber stamp which the artist produced, some years earlier, to RSVP, with ‘Regrets – Jasper Johns’, unsolicited invitations that arrived to his Sharon, Connecticut studio.5 A perfect copy of the artist’s handmade guarantee of authenticity, the stamp articulates sincerity but performs flippancy; its material and semantic registers jar. This indexical trace of a glib gesture contests with the affective and symbolic import otherwise delivered by those highly textured surfaces. It interferes, productively, with the signal. When that stamp is reproduced, appropriately enlarged, in painted (further remediated) form in the large oil, its signification is further complicated.

In the minds of most visitors to this exhibition, Johns is less a contemporary artist than a Postwar/ Pop/ or even New York school painter and printmaker who is, somewhat uncannily, still with us. Johns knows this. Precisely because he achieved such renown when he did – with his first one-man show staged by Leo Castelli in 1958 – he is necessarily a painter from the past. Called, by this huge, hyper-visible signature to recollect the New York art world in which that name came to renown we cannot but be aware that he is now, at 84, nearing the end of his life. He knows this too. Reminding us in interviews of the flippant purpose for which the stamp was originally designed cancels the epic connotations summoned by the series’ symbolic content. Stamping these works with a title so overladen with heavy emotional baggage, Johns registers this awareness. He recognises that when we go to see a show like this one, we do so not because, but at least in awareness, that this might well be our last opportunity to see new work by this major artist while he is still living. Perhaps, among so many other things, his title calls our bluff. It names our anxiety to foreclose risk of regretting opportunities for cultural consumption (and hence capital-accrual) not taken. Johns’ readymade signature might also be construed as a détournement of Duchamp’s readymades with signature. The drollery is typical but the gesture is significant. Via these interventions, as well as the incorporation of his signature colours, rectangular inserts, harlequins and crosshatchings, the artist’s presence is made to manifest, all over Regrets.

Repeatedly reinscribed, the title-signature compound is a fixture of all but one of the components of the series made thereafter.6 The same is true of the enlargement instructions, ‘Enlarge to 253/4‘ which also appear in the top right corner in the large oil. This is not the first time that the artist has deliberately reproduced such a technical instruction. When Voice (1964-67), a two-paneled painting with fork and spoon on wire, was photographed to make a plate for the Screen Pieces (1967-68) the artist wrote ‘Fork should be 7” long’ upon it as an instruction to the printer. Coming upon this adulterated object, much as he claims to have found the stamp – in his studio and by chance – Johns arranged for the photograph, in enlargement, to be silkscreened and painted with this instruction intact. At the appearance of this ‘injection of levity’ in Regrets, Wright writes, ‘(o)ne breathes a sigh of relief’.7 We might, instead, be impelled to look still harder.

It is in the three ink drawings on plastic that Johns’ technique and his conceptual project in Regrets succeed most compellingly.8 Even when dry, the play of the ink on glossy Mylar retains a suggestion of mobility. Their marbled surfaces appear to reform before us. They exhibit a kinetic potentiality countered by the control with which Johns polices the border zones between forms, ensuring that an astonishing degree of detail remains legible. Dark areas are bounded by outlines of light. Trapped liquid suggests reflection. Striated swirls concentrically stacked achieve the agate-like appearance of the trametes versicolour fungus. Pooling, bubbling, freckling or settling into discrete zones of perfect opacity, the ink obeys a gravity-driven logic dictated by the conjunction between its liquidity and the materiality of its support. However, it does so under the curatorship of a hand in sway to equally powerful, formal agendas of its own. In these drawings, Johns directs the ink to conform not alone to the patterns read and replicated by the photocopier but also to produce other, non-inherited effects.

In one of these unambiguously beautiful objects, a new apparent accident is seen to have been permitted to endure. The piece to which I refer can be identified by the unusually high degree of contrast between its unusually dark A side and a B side that brightens in the passage from left to right so that the outer right edge displays an effect akin to a photographic over-exposure or white-out. This piece is also marked by the presence of numerous monochromatically crosshatched areas and its calligraphic rendering of the skull’s muzzle: an ornamental detail which lends it an uncomfortably decorative aspect. Here, as before, the head of the figure (still somehow there in spite of all that has gone on in and around it) is largely occluded by the splayed fingers of a shielding hand. In this instance, however, some vagary of the ink has resulted in another chance manifestation. Out of what was once/still is the hair of the head, and between the second and third fingers, an eye appears. This impossible eye, set beneath an equally impossible eyebrow, looks out at us beseechingly. In the confluence of by now very almost abstract pattern and the aleatory, a human face has been allowed to materialise. Its location is as anatomically inaccurate as it is unexpected; and yet, once seen, it cannot be unperceived. Just as we witnessed the morphing of one body into another in the watercolour and small (blue) oil, so here we see the side of the head re-organise its forms into those of an eerie mask.

  1. Regrets (2013) Oil on canvas (127 x 182.9cm); Untitled (2013) Watercolour on paper (56.5 x 78.7cm).
  2. Jasper Johns, ‘Sketchbook notes’, reproduced in Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, 56.
  3. John Yau, ‘Bridge and Catenary Works’, in Jasper Johns: Seeing with the Mind’s Eye, 143.
  4. Gary Garrels, ‘The Bushbaby Series’ in Jasper Johns: Seeing with the Mind’s Eye, 163.
  5. This site of the series’ production is cited below the signature on many of the works.
  6. The watercolour, Untitled (2013) displays the signature in its habitual placement, but bears no sign (stamp or otherwise) of ‘Regrets’.
  7. Wright, 15.
  8. All Untitled (2013) Ink on plastic (69.9 x 91.4cm). Just three of the four Mylar works were shown in London. The excluded piece closely resembles one of the two aqua-tints on chine-collé (both titled Regrets 2014, 69.9cm x 91.4cm), both of which were also only on view only at MoMA. Given Johns’ prowess as a print-maker, the absence of these works is regrettable. One of these is marked by the dramatic overlaying, on the left side of the print, of a great dark extension of the void. The other, like the missing Mylar piece, bears a converse area of brightness in the same location. Only the former aquatint incorporates the rectangular insert discussed above.
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