Jasper Johns’ print works bring order to chaos

Jasper Johns’ “Pinion,” edition 13/36, 1966, is part of an exhibition of print work from the artist better known for his bronze Ballantine Ale cans. Jasper Johns’ “Pinion,” edition 13/36, 1966, is part of an exhibition of print work from the artist better known for his bronze Ballantine Ale cans.

Now in his eighties, America’s greatest living artist, Jasper Johns, is still recognized as the vanguard who ignored convention to create a new, galvanizing style that brilliantly reflected the spirit and mores of its time. Johns’ far-reaching influence can be discerned in Pop Art, minimalism, and conceptual art movements and it continues to resound in contemporary art today.

Though he is best known for his paintings and his bronze Ballantine Ale cans, Johns is also considered a master printmaker with a body of work that shows his total command of the various media within the field of printmaking. “Jasper Johns: Early Prints from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation” at UVA’s Fralin museum (through May 19) offers a rare opportunity to view a selection of these graphic works.

A generation behind the Abstract Expressionists, Johns’ work was both a reaction against their tenets and an assimilation of their aesthetic. While rejecting the Abstract Expressionists’ non-
objective ethos, he retained a similar all-over surface and painterly approach. He chose an iconography composed of the familiar—“things the mind already knows,” like flags, maps, letters, and numbers, keeping the subject matter intentionally minimal, so as not to distract from the media and technique. Indeed, the hallmark of Johns’ work is this gravitas of approach, blended with rather mundane subject matter.

From the moment his work first appeared, viewers have been both attracted and puzzled by the enigmatic nature of these serious pieces that take trivialities as their subject matter. “When people saw these works, they knew what they were seeing, but the big question was ‘Why?’” said curator Jennifer Farrell. “Why am I looking at this? And Johns never answers that question.” Farrell suggested his long-term partner [the late, great artist] Robert Rauschenberg provided a clue when he said about his own work, “Painting relates to both art and life, I try to act in that gap between the two.”

Part of the answer also lies in the fact that the post-World War II era, when Johns was coming of age, saw a veritable sea change in both expression and perception. With the rise of advertising, stimulated by the advent of TV, came an enormous increase in visual bombardment. For the first time, images began to subvert ideas. Tapping into this, Johns created a new artistic language.

Throughout his career, Johns was constantly reworking, testing boundaries, and experimenting, and his work resonates with this. According to Farrell, “Johns wanted to play with familiar things and the idea of taking something, doing something to it, doing something else to it—again and again —is central to his art. We can see this specifically in the numbers and letters where he uses a stencil form—a reproducible form.”

“0–9,” 1960-1963, is a significant piece because it’s printed from one stone, so with each new number Johns brings along traces of the previous number(s). Being a series, it dovetails well with his whole inclination towards repetition. He chooses a jaunty, voluptuous font that seems so at odds with the haute art manner in which it’s rendered. To our eyes it looks distinctly of its era, lifted as it was straight from popular culture.

“There’s also a literalness to his work, said Farrell. “Johns doesn’t alter the arrangements of the numbers, the letters, the flag, or the map. The configuration is the same, but they’re different in each print because of the nature of the medium.”

Technically, the series is so complicated with a frieze-like list of numbers on top, all of which had to be executed in reverse, that it’s been theorized that when Johns embarked on it, as a novice printmaker, he didn’t realize what he was getting into. Farrell points out this is a key work that had “repercussions throughout his career. Fifty years later you can see Johns making reference to the same themes. Again, he’s taking something and engaging with it in different media, in different context, and in a different method.”

Farrell notes that the earliest work in the exhibit, an abstract monoprint from 1954, is historically significant because it places Johns’ initial foray into printmaking six years earlier than what is indicated by conventional lore.

I think my favorite work is the ghostly “Two Maps I,” 1966, though I wish it were framed in a less distracting manner. It’s a diptych of the United States, gray ink on a black field. Like his flags, this piece speaks to the spirit of nationalism prevalent in 1950s America. I really like that it’s a monochromatic version of the colorful children’s puzzle and especially how the lyrical image seems to hover above the paper.

“Numbers,” 1967, and “Gray Alphabets,” 1968, present grids of numbers and letters, respectively, which seem to pulse with a sensuousness that one doesn’t generally associate with such dry fodder as integers and letters.

“Decoy II,” 1973, is a complex work both in terms of technique and meaning. Here, Johns has produced a whole array of visual effects: squiggly lines, painterly strokes, block letters, a sculptural leg fragment, a perfect circle and, that old faithful, a Ballantine Ale can. It could be a busy mess, but the composition hangs together elegantly.

Most of the works on display are lithographs, as is fitting, since the medium held an important place in Johns’ oeuvre. But there are others that reveal Johns’ wide-
ranging interest and proficiency in different printmaking techniques and materials. Johns collaborated on the early lithographs and later silk screens with master printmakers Tatyana Grosman and Ken Tyler. And the works bear witness to the cooperative relationship between printmaker and artist who, working together, produced this exceptional body of work.

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