Johns’ monotype process consisted of painting with wet pigments onto the hard surface of a Mylar plate, laying a sheet of paper on top of the plate, and then running the matrix through a printing press to transfer the image to the sheet. Johns’ series of 1983 monotypes, however, posed a new challenge to this traditional approach, as the expanded format of the sheet was too large to pass through the printing press all at once. Johns therefore had to prepare several Mylar plates for each work and one-by-one impress each individual plate across the elongated sheet in stages of consecutive sections. Unlike a normal monotype work created by just one plated transfer, the present work illustrates the sensational effects of a sectional approach where surprise patterns and chance occurrences emerge as synapses within the macro compositional design.
Untitled reveals these moments of unexpected satisfaction in areas where Johns’ pattern work assembles in near mirror-image symmetry along junctures in the sectioned borders. Excluding these numbered exceptions of seemingly flawless linear balancing acts, pattern throughout the rest of the composition exists not as a logical equation but as a confounding puzzle. Within the crosshatching system itself, we see Johns fully unmasked and susceptible to a kind of painter’s dilemma as he decided how to conclude each form while giving rise to another.
With the success of his Flag paintings, Johns earned a reputation early on for appropriating common, everyday images with the intention of unraveling universally familiar objects into strange and unexpected partitions of mere stripes and shapes. In a similar vein, the origin of the abstract crosshatch motif derives directly from everyday life. Describing the genesis of his crosshatch design, Johns commented: “I was driving on Long Island when a car came toward me painted in this way. I only saw it for a second, but knew immediately that I was going to use it. It had all the qualities which interest me – literalness, repetitiveness, an obsessive quality, order with dumbness, and the possibility of a complete lack of meaning” (Johns, quoted in S. Kent, “Jasper Johns: Strokes of Genius,” Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, New York, 1996, p. 259). Just as the American Flag is an object in everyday life whose ubiquity renders it meaningless and abstract, Johns suggests that this seemingly arbitrary inconsequential crosshatch pattern originates in the visual barrage of the real world.
Endowing the geometric abstract pattern with previously unforeseen objectivity in Untitled, the crosshatch becomes a vehicle for Johns to explore how an image is made through medium and method, concentrating thoughtfully on the means of picture-making rather than the end. In Untitled, the contrast between moments of pure and impure pattern evidenced in the both all-over composition and in the individual hatchmarks themselves significantly underscores Johns’ ongoing negotiation between control and chance. As such, the present work highlights the artist’s effort to reconcile the mechanical with the handmade. While the hatches are imperfect and hand drawn, once submitted to the rote printing press, the “human” elements coalesce to that of the predetermined framework. Together, the hand and the machine evince a brilliantly textured filigree of rearranged fragments. As the viewer’s eye dances across the grand surface of this work, swatches of line work in tandem like gears that seem to churn the picture plane into fanciful motion, again pointing to Johns’ preeminent creative genius in his relentless pursuit of the full expressive potential of process and material.
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