Flags, targets, numbers, coffee cans.
Jasper Johns’s paintings are iconic. In 1958, a solo show at New York’s Leo Castelli Gallery established him as a force in the national and international art world. Two years later, Johns began to branch out creatively, experimenting with printmaking, a medium that provided him with a technique for reworking images. The new show at the Phillips Collection, Jasper Johns: Variations on a Theme, brings together a collection of his prints tracing an artistic journey that spanned more than five decades.
First, a tutorial:
“In lithography, designs are drawn with a greasy crayon on prepared limestone. The stone is moistened and water is retained in the areas not covered by the crayon. When ink is applied, it adheres to the drawing, but is repelled by the wet areas. The final image, printed in reverse, is made by pressing paper against the inked drawing.” From the Phillips Collection’s Exhibit Brochure, Renée Maurer, Assistant Curator
Johns was not only an artist, but a technician, pushing the boundaries to experiment with new ways to produce prints. He spent eight years at Tatyana Grossman’s Long Island lithography studio, Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE). There he also turned out works with offset lithography where an image is produced in its original orientation rather than the reverse. Later, he moved to Los Angeles to work with master printer and publisher Kenneth Tyler at Graphic Editions Limited (G.E.L.). He initiated a complex print process that consisted of lead reliefs. The lead relief, “Bread,” was created through this process.
This is a fun exhibit, one that older children as well as adults will find amusing and intriguing. Some of the prints are straightforward, like one featuring a can of Savarin coffee, first introduced as a sculpture in 1960. This lithograph, one of three designed as a poster for his 1977 retrospective, shows the can against a colorful background of cross hatching. According to Johns: “I was riding in a car, going out to the Hamptons for the weekend, when a car came in the opposite direction. It was covered with these marks, but I only saw it for a moment….I immediately thought that I would use it for my next painting.”
Other prints require a little bit more thought and interpretation, like “The Seasons” (1987), four eight-color etchings. One of the four works, “Summer,” combines flags, seahorses, and star-like leaves with an image of the “Mona Lisa”. The collage-like composition warrants close examination. Chances are each person, as well as each viewing, will call to mind different interpretations.
Even “Target,” considered Johns’s first published print, is more than it seems at first glance. Is the circular image a target? An eyeball? Are we looking at the target or is the eyeball looking at us?
Johns first used the American flag in a print in 1960, although flags had shown up in his other works. According to Johns, he decided to use the flag in his work after having a dream. Johns was ahead of his time. The American flag is now used to decorate everything from T-shirts to placemats. But, as we see with this print, “Flags II” (1970), no one did it better. This flag print, a more complex version of one Johns created in 1960, involved using five stones and five aluminum plates to print two flags in color.
Johns is now 82. His most recent print, “Untitled” (2011) employed an etching process where an acid solution was painted directly onto a prepared plate. Maurer noted in her exhibit brochure that 11 colors were printed from only three plates. The print includes objects—figures, vases, ladder, handkerchief, and nail—that refer back to Johns’s works from the 1980s. Maurer added : “Such complexity reveals how Johns continues to experiment with printmaking to challenge and surprise his audiences, more than five decades into his career.”
Jasper Johns: Variations on a Theme
The Phillips Collection
1600 21st Street, NW
Credits, from top:
Jasper Johns, Savarin, 1977. Lithograph, 45 x 35 in. Published by Universal Limited Art Editions. John and Maxine Belger Foundation © Jasper Johns and ULAE / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Jasper Johns, Bread, 1969. Embossing with object, 23 x 17 in. Published by Gemini G.E.L. John and Maxine Belger Foundation © Jasper Johns and Gemini G.E.L. / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Jasper Johns, The Seasons (Summer), 1987. Intaglio, 26 x 19 in. Published by Universal Limited Art Editions. John and Maxine Belger Foundation © Jasper Johns and ULAE / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Jasper Johns, Target, 1960. Lithograph, 22 1?2 x 17 1?2 in. Published by Universal Limited Art Editions. John and Maxine Belger Foundation © Jasper Johns and ULAE / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Jasper Johns, Flags II, 1970. Lithograph, 34 x 25 in. Published by Universal Limited Art Editions. John and Maxine Belger Foundation © Jasper Johns and ULAE / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Jasper Johns, Untitled, 2011. Intaglio, 43 1/2 x 33 5/8 in. Published by Universal Limited Art Editions. Private collection © Jasper Johns and ULAE / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY