In an age of prequels and sequels, the art of Jasper Johns fits right in. That’s one of the takeaways from “Jasper Johns and Edvard Munch: Inspiration and Transformation,” a compelling show currently on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in Richmond. Ostensibly, it is about the abstractions Johns began executing in 1974 and the paintings, prints, and works on paper by Munch that may have inspired him, but it is also a welcome opportunity to take an extended look at some of the most challenging work Johns ever made.
Decades later, it’s still difficult to understand why an artist who made a name for himself painting flags, maps, targets, and numbers, not to mention sculpting coffee cans, ale cans, flashlights, and lightbulbs, suddenly took a break from portraying representational objects and instead devoted himself to covering canvases and sheets of paper of various sizes and formats with patterned crosshatching in oil, encaustic, pastel, ink, watercolor, and other media. For more than a decade and a half, over and over again, Johns deployed countless clusters of parallel lines on the diagonal.
As it is, Johns’s origin story could not be more quixotic. Years later, he claimed he became interested in this motif because “I was driving on Long Island when a car came toward me painted this way. I only saw it for a second, but knew immediately that I was going to use it.” Really?
When it came to titling some of his abstract paintings, Johns used nouns with multiple meanings and references. Take Scent (1973–74), three panels of purple, lime-green, and orange marks. Besides referring to the sense of smell, it’s what dogs sniff as they try to locate, say, a fugitive, truffles, or some other quarry. And, as the show’s curator, John Ravenal, writes in the exhibition catalogue, the title “echo[es] a 1955 painting by Jackson Pollock, possibly his last, and draws a parallel with Pollock’s method of covering canvas with an allover pattern.”
Then, there’s Cicada (1979), another triptych but one with a subdued palette. That word calls to mind both the unusual physiognomy and peculiar life cycle of the insect species that spends most of its life underground, emerging only every 13 or 17 years. When reading about cicadas, people generally think of the loud, shrill sound these insects emit.
Or consider Usuyuki (1979), with its vertical orientation and assertively painted passages of white. You practically feel all the marks drifting down from the top toward the bottom of the work. Consequently, despite this being an abstraction, Johns conveyed the meaning of usuyuki in Japanese: lightly falling snow, an image which engages the sense of sight. It also alludes to a Japanese kabuki play in which an old man cannot consummate relations with a beautiful geisha.
That’s a lot of information for short, truncated marks to convey. It is, though, the sort of stuff associated with Old Master allegories that picture the five senses, including the four Johns references: sight, smell, touch, and hearing.
Just before executing these abstractions, Johns designed the exhibition poster for his retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which was held in late 1977. In front of a field of crosshatch marks, he depicted his well-known Savarin Coffee can sculpture replete with paintbrushes. As was his wont, he continued to reprise this image in a series of subsequent drawings (on plastic), lithographs, and monotypes. Adding recognizable imagery seemed one way to extend the life of his latest theme.
Two weeks after Johns’s show at the Whitney closed, a retrospective devoted to Sol LeWitt, another artist then working with crosshatching—albeit as marks on walls—opened at the Museum of Modern Art. He, too, had had to figure out how to continue developing imagery predicated on lines. Unlike Johns, LeWitt complicated his program of abstraction by changing some of the rules that had initially guided him and his assistants. For example, as he made more wall drawings, his crosshatches became wider, and he introduced many more colors than he had originally had intended to use.
As exemplified by the poster and subsequent drawings and prints with the Savarin can against a field of crosshatching, Johns negotiated a path between his past and his future. He also began appropriating, as detailed in the exhibition catalogue, a number of motifs that had appeared in artworks by Edvard Munch, an artist not readily associated with the in and outs of abstract art. This included a wood-grain pattern, a long, stretched-out arm, and sperm-like forms.
During his Munchian period, Johns painted Between the Clock and the Bed, a trio of abstract masterpieces (made between 1981 to 1983) that share their title with an important self-portrait by Munch, which also features a bedspread with a crosshatch pattern. Two were executed in encaustic and the third, in oil. Their palette is remarkably subdued, given the bright whites, reds, blues, and yellows that characterize related crosshatching pictures. Moreover, their large size signals their ambition, and at the same time, practically requires they be seen in person rather than in reproduction. Stand near any of these 6-foot-tall works and you immediately see the life-size ghostlike figure in the center. But this form is so elusive that not one of the panels ever loses its identity as a wholly abstract work of art. This is quite a feat.
Having achieved this hat trick, Johns began incorporating reduced versions of paintings with crosshatching or patterned fragments into more representational—and unsettling—works such as In the Studio (1982), Perilous Night (1982), and Untitled (1984). It can be argued that these expansive works call to mind the sort of allegories associated with interiors in Dutch Golden Age paintings. As the public at large became aware of the lives being lost to AIDS, Johns branched out from his extended period of abstract work. The cast of an arm fixed to a wall in In the Studio carries splotches, while a painting depicted near this limb, appears to be melting. In addition to its dark coloration, Perilous Night has three arms cast from differently aged people that convey the notion of time passing. At this juncture, Johns executed some of the most personal and heartfelt art of his career.
“Jasper Johns and Edvard Munch” closes with a gallery devoted to the artist’s four, exhilarating Seasons—Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter—displayed side-by-side. Executed over the course of two years (1985–86), these tall panels recapitulate Johns’s career in what could be termed flashbacks and reveries, art-historical references mixed with self-referential material. Looking at them, at what they depict and how they are painted, it becomes clear why Johns proceeded slowly, methodically, and laboriously. Despite being engaged with matters of abstraction for some 15 years, he was remaining loyal to the pictorial tradition of the Old Masters, which he honored time and again.