Seeing Skulls, Reading Palms: Jasper Johns in 2014

By | 1 March 2015

Yet something much more interesting is going on just above. Directly over this maskface, a small patch of crosshatch arises out of a faintly dimpled form of irregular dimensions. Its lines rise towards the right, then terminate abruptly – causing the end of each diagonal to pool into a soft oval. Could this be a disembodied hand? If so, it has too many fingers. The suggestion at first seems ludicrous, possibly pareidolic. Perceived in a vacuum, removed from recollection of Johns’ back catalogue, such suspicions could readily be dismissed. But that context is not ours. Johns first introduced his own handprint to a work in 1962’s four Study for Skin drawings; thereafter, his handprint would feature in myriad prints, paintings and drawings. Hands – variously vertical, (Land’s End), horizontal, (Periscope (Hart Crane) )1 and inverted and doubled, (Diver) – are everywhere. So prevalent are these incorporations of that hyper-literal mark of what Duchamp scathingly referred to as the artist’s ‘patte’ that, in 2012, the Belgian Foundation de 11 Lijnen hosted an exhibition devoted entirely to ‘Hands in the Prints of Jasper Johns’.2 Hands, like harlequins, signify artist in general. By now, they also signify this artist in particular.

Explaining his preference for working in ink on plastic, Johns says:

‘I like the way it removes itself from my touch … one can apply the wet ink in a way that allows it to change its form as it dries – and I like that part of it … Not the surprise. I like its independence, that it is difficult to tell from the finished drawing what gestures were used to produce it’.3

In this drawing, Johns’ paw has been invited, if not to enter, then certainly to stay. The medium he chooses for its denial of the artist’s ‘patte’ produces an aleatory (and digitally overequipped) sham of the artist’s hand: an absurd, delightful mockery of Johns’ maker’s mark. In 1966 Duchamp spoke of being ‘on guard, because there’s the danger of the “hand” (la patte) which comes back’.4 Johns knows this fear but perhaps it scares him less. He says: ‘Sometimes I see it and then paint it. Other times I paint it and then see it. Both are impure situations, and I prefer neither’.5

Rather than evading the danger of artistic agency, Johns sets it (his hand) in play with chance, abstraction, remediation, appropriation and a visual lexicon – a Johnsian idiolect – built over an art-making lifetime. He watches to see what happens. He looks at how each game plays out; then he resets the clock and starts again – but never from the beginning. Over and over, he calls us to look harder. Johns says: ‘I am interested in seeing a thing through as many approaches as possible’.

To see Johns seeing things through, is to think through with him. It may take repetition, but in the end we see that it is the hand, rather than the skull, that haunts Regrets.

  1. For an illuminating reading of Periscope and of the artist’s relationship with Hart Crane, see Brian M. Reed’s ‘Hand in Hand: Jasper Johns and Hart Crane’, Modernism/modernity, 17.1 (January 2010), 21-45.
  2. See also the lithograph, Hatteras (1963), painting, Passage II (1966), the presence of the hand casts, among many other body-bits, in Target with Plaster Casts (1955).
  3. Jasper Johns, qtd. in The Drawings of Jasper Johns, exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1990, 73, qtd. Wright 11-12.
  4. ‘It’s fun to do things by hand. I’m on guard, because there’s the danger of the ‘hand’ (la patte) which comes back.’ Marcel Duchamp to Pierre Cabanne in Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp (London: Da Capo 1979), 106.
  5. 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.
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