New York

Jasper Johns

Castelli Gallery | Uptown

Jasper Johns, showing for the first time in two years, exhibits six paintings. They constitute two sets, most of whose overlapping elements are already familiar to students of Johns’s iconography. I do not propose, in the space at hand, to thoroughly investigate all the developments in the recent work. What I would suggest, however, is that these paintings (they are not entirely painted, for they involve the use of silk screen and other, unidentified, processes) are somewhat lighter in their burden of discourse. They do not, like Edingsville of 1964, seen in Johns’s last show, involve quite so much in the way of conceptual bricolage. They indicate, in fact, a shift in the relation of speculative play to form, so that one’s attention is drawn—particularly in the Screen Pieces—to the mysteries and refinements of process itself. That is to say, they engage one’s interest less immediately on the level of literary conceit (involving, say, the relationship of knife-and-fork image to the printed instruction which reads “fork should be 7 inches long”) than on the level of technique.

Painting and silkscreen process, the imprint of mesh and wire marks, contrive to make these paintings suggest something analogous to a Veronica’s Veil. They have the aspect of the backs of things, of surfaces which have received reverse images. Each canvas seems less an entity than the imprint or reflection of another, prior one; it refers to another, prior, primary reality of which it seems the estheticized reflection. It thus proposes, both in its synthesis of images of objects already familiar in the artist’s work, and much more generally, in its style and facture, a metaphor for the increasingly evident development in Johns’s work, the sublimation involved in its reflexiveness.

Johns has remarked (in an interview conducted by Walter Hopps and published in Artforum, March, 1965) that “certain paintings are meaningful because they allow you to shift weight in a different way. I mean that some paintings involve elements which are not involved in other paintings and when those elements become involved then one is free from the boundaries of what one had been doing and can move. That kind of thing can happen either by dropping something, letting go of it, or by attaching something else, bringing something else in.”

Thus the knife and fork which had appeared in In Memory of My Feelings (Frank O’Hara), 1961, and reappeared, “echoed by its drawing” in Out the Window (1961), re-appear in the three Screen Pieces, screened on to the surface, like the shadow of their shadow. They are progressively attenuated until the third and last of the series, in which the illegibility of the accompanying size direction is accompanied or, rather, emphasized, by the extremely sharp focus of the print on the title page of Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets, situated in the upper left hand corner of the picture.

Studio 2 proposes, again, a mysteriousness of its making. The imprint of window-like rectangles outlined in black, subdivided into pane like rectangles of white, suggests a modular scheme to which the relation of the ruler in the upper right-hand corner is entirely ambiguous. The center window has a kind of screen of buff paint covering both it and the drip visible towards the bottom of the canvas.

There is a difference of surface involved, but a difference which, though real, not optical, has no density, just the figuration of density. The top of the picture has, reading from right to left, a strip of blue, yellow and pink. At the intersection of yellow and blue, there is a green area, and at the intersection of pink and yellow, orange. The mixed colors are painted in a rough manner which denies the neatness of the primary hues.

Elements from this painting are superimposed upon recollections of Studio 1 (1964) to make the most arresting canvas of the present exhibition, Harlem Light. Among the elements of Studio 2 so used are the white outline of the window-like forms as superimposed upon the partly shaped, partly imprinted door of Studio 1. The window forms are not iconographically incompatible, as elsewhere in Johns’s work (and in relation to Duchamp), with the suggestion of the canvas stretcher: once this is recalled, the very large areas of rectangular color, handled with an increasingly atmospheric manner, will suggest the light of dawn and dusk as seen beyond that window door stretcher.

The extreme left-hand panel of Harlem Light is a heavily painted disposition of red, black and white irregular forms. Their presence is eccentric with respect to almost the entire range of Johns’s work. Though painted, they resemble in their effect, the incorporated casts of mouths or noses in the earlier painting. They have that somewhat disconcerting extraneousness. And yet they are painted, though in high relief. Looking at a photograph you would see the manner in which the spots of the panel, suggesting a flagstone walk or wall, are tied to the surface of the work as a whole. Except that looking at the work in the gallery, you realize that there is simply no common pictorial surface in this triptych, but rather a projection of notions about surface and depth involved in mutual contradiction, so that the ruler, half its surface obscured by a burst of paint, a constant throughout these recent works, points, as an ironic reminder, to their incommensurability.

Annette Michelson