Thursday, 23 April 2015

Jasper Johns: An old man drawing

I've been looking at some recent work by Jasper Johns entitled 'Regrets' which consists of a group of two paintings, 10 drawings, and two prints created over a year and a half and exhibited for the first time last year at MOMA. 
Johns is now well into his 80s and was of course a powerful influence on both Pop Art and Conceptual Art during the 1960s. I have already pointed to his importance to the art world in an earlier post, but I'm also personally very interested in what he is now doing as an older artist, (perhaps because I'm of an age to have felt Johns' original influence in the 1960s), I'm fascinated to see that he is still working and still able to generate images that can hold my attention. 
For someone new to Johns' art perhaps one of the most important things to grasp is that he is essentially a process artist. However I thought that in this series of works the image he is processing is particularly poignant. 
Johns had been looking through a series of images that came from the reconstruction of Frances Bacon's studio in Dublin. One image was of a photograph of Lucien Freud that Bacon had had taken when he was thinking of making Freud's portrait. The photograph was crumpled, ripped and torn, a whole section missing from the bottom half. 

As you can see from the photograph above Bacon must have spent some time with it investigating possibilities for a painting. On seeing this image Johns decided that it was worth investigating. What it was that captured his attention he doesn’t say so one can only conjecture. I suspect what resonated was that Freud had recently died, and was of a similar age to Johns. They never, as far as I know, met, but both were regarded as international masters of contemporary painting. Freud holds his head as if agonising over something, and of course this being an image found in Frances Bacon’s studio, (another ‘master’ of contemporary art) this anguish or introspection must have been something Bacon was interested in as a possibility for one of his very expressive paintings. Johns of course is known for his personal reserve, for not showing any emotion in his work and for being a more ‘cerebral’ artist. Perhaps Johns saw this image as a type of ‘vanitas’ (Vanitas themes in painting and the overlapping motif of the Memento mori, were meant to remind viewers of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death), being of the age he is and aware that both Bacon and Freud are now dead, perhaps reminding Johns of his own coming demise. Whatever caused Johns to select this image, what he does next is perhaps of more interest for those of you interested in his process.
The first thing Johns does is to simply draw what he sees. 

As you can see from the drawing everything has taken on an equal importance, the torn out section and the creases are just as important as the photographic image. For Johns how to work from photographs has been a long running problem, and this way of working allows him to 'see' the photograph as an object and he has asserted in the past that he is always seeking to ensure that his paintings are objects and not windows on the world. 
I think he may even have traced the initial image directly from the catalogue page he found it on. This would have allowed him to easily make his next step.

He has mirrored the first image and made a new image by filling in both halves of the new image differently. One side he has crayoned in using primary and secondary colours and on the other side he has filled in the shapes with a grey wash. Because the edges of folds and crumples are just as important as images, the overall image itself is now becoming much harder to read and a new unexpected image has arrived due to the mirroring process. Over what was simply a torn out shape, has now appeared a 'skull'. The torn out shape now becoming a vest like body. Johns has used skulls in his work before, so he would have been quick to recognise the image when it arrived. 

It's interesting that in this print from the 1970s, Johns has put a cross through his signature. 

Once he has realised that the image on mirroring contains another (discovered)  image he sets off to make the composition more interesting. 

He crops the left side of the image so that the bi-lateral symmetry is removed, (there is an image stage before this but I haven't had the time to scan it in, I will at some point) he then begins to explore ways of working over the surface so that the mark takes precedence over the image. 

You should just about be able to see the 'vest' shape near the centre.

Detail of the drawing above. 

Johns then proceeds to explore possibilities of surface excitement by working in ink on plastic film. This means that he is able to work within the outlines he has constructed for himself, but unable to control the flow of the ink, because on plastic it flows uncontrollably and makes blobs and thickens and thins unpredictably. 


Johns then makes several of these drawings in ink. (If you want to try working in this way the print room down in Vernon Street stocks rolls of 'true grain' which is transparent plastic sheet used for making photographic exposures for silk screens, and I would suggest that Johns came across this method of working when doing exactly that, preparing to make a silk screen by painting ink on plastic sheet). 

Sometimes the image is coming through more clearly than at others, the 'mood' changing as black becomes more dominant or soft greys spread throughout. 

Finally Johns takes the image into print. Using etching processes to further explore the possibilities. 

'Regrets' Etching

Etching detail, from the central 'vest' shape, showing use of soft ground technique, whereby a textured surface is pushed into the soft wax ground and the resultant removal of wax allowing acid to eat out the metal to create a similar texture. 

Once in print Johns can really easily make variations, as you can see from this wall of images the basic design now hosts a wide variety of tonal and textual developments. 

While his work in drawing is developing possibilities for the image he is also painting. These two images below being the result. 

Regrets 1 Jasper Johns

Regrets 2 Jasper Johns

The final paintings have moved a long way from the original photographic image. Whether or not you are interested to them as images, the process is still a useful one and one that above all allows Johns as an artist to discover images as he works. What so many artists find hard is setting off to make a new image, if you try and get one straight from your head, it will nearly always be a cliché, therefore Johns, like so many artists uses a process that allows him to discover what it is that he is doing as he does it. 

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