Jasper Johns, 1964. Photo: Ugo Mulas © Ugo Mulas Heirs. All rights reserved. Art © 2020 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Bold in its kaleidoscopic color palette and riveting in its unending visual depth, Usuyuki is among the most visually captivating and intellectually rigorous compositions of Jasper Johns’ storied artistic career. Begun during the critical decade between 1973 and 1983 during which Johns radically embraced pure abstraction and became consumed by a serial crosshatch pattern, Usuyuki is an exceptional example of Johns’ widely celebrated motif. Executed between 1979 and 1995, Usuyuki reflects the studied diligence with which Johns approaches his artistic practice and the importance of this motif within his larger dialectic. The present work belongs to a larger body of crosshatched compositions within Johns’ oeuvre that he also titled Usuyuki, a term which in Japanese translates to “light snow.” Reflecting Johns’ inquisitive propensity to explore the same motif through a diversity of mediums, Usuyuki is rendered in watercolor and ink overlaid on plastic. The gestural fluidity of the watercolor medium causes strokes of color to imperfectly abut and in some places bleed into one another, while the nonabsorbent property of the plastic medium forces the diluted ink and watercolor to break down and pool invariably across the composition while drying, exposing the tonal and textural depth within the pigment itself. This medium endows the work with an enthralling visual depth and underscores the conceptual tensions that underlie Johns’ artistic oeuvre. As with Johns’ encaustic paintings, the ink on plastic medium dutifully captures in the final composition a meticulous record of its own creation.

(left) Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait, Between the clock and the bed, 1940-1942. Munch Museum, Oslo. Art © 2020 The Munch Museum / The Munch-Ellingsen Group / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (right) Fernand Léger, Contrast of forms (Contraste de formes), 1913. Sprengel Museum, Hannover, Germany. Art © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

From within the pre-ordained parameters dictated by Usuyuki’s crosshatch motif, sharp staccato strokes of color ricochet off each other and erupt in a tightly controlled cacophony of color and line. Dense layers of watercolor and colored ink associated as complementary colors – red and green, blue and orange, purple and yellow – weave together and coalesce to form a coherent and impenetrable system. Across the three equidistant panels, passages of denser pigmentation are offset by pools of lighter tonalities, culminating in a visually mesmerizing composition that possesses the intimacy, luminosity, and voluminous depth of an abstract landscape. Faint grid lines discernible beneath the crosshatched pattern elucidate the meticulous process by which Johns arrives at the seemingly chaotic and serendipitous network of lines and endow the triptych with a prevailing unity. Geometric circles punctuate the crosshatch motif, their flat, stenciled appearance interrupting the unrelenting depth of the watercolor crosshatch and adding to the visual complexity and mesmerizing effect of the overall composition.

The artist photographed by Hans Namuth. Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona © 1991 Hans Namuth Estate. Art © 2020 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Commenting on the dramatic import of the serendipitous, gestural brushstroke of Abstract Expressionism, Johns here appropriates this gesture but inverts its meaning: Johns negates the individuality and expressive spontaneity associated with Abstract Expressionism by turning these strokes into repeated units within a predetermined patterned sequence. Although appearing to entertain the gestural spontaneity of Jackson Pollock, Johns assigns this abstract pattern an objectivity through its title, its association to an experience within everyday life, and through its carefully measured, pre-mandated configuration. In the exhaustive density of its surface and laborious application of each individual brushstroke, Usuyuki triumphantly celebrates Johns’ inexhaustible passion for mark-making.

Brice Marden, The Propitious Garden of Plane Images, Third Version, 2000-2006. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Art © 2020 Brice Marden / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

That the abstract crosshatch pattern apparently lacks obvious narrative content undoubtedly appealed to Johns, as did the motif's potential to take on deeper significance. With his Usuyuki series, Johns radically broke from his customary practice of avoiding illusionistic and evocative titles for his works. Usuyuki is a Japanese term for a light, falling snow and is also the title of a famous Japanese Kabuki play about desire and the transience of life and death. Johns assigns the term “Usuyuki” objecthood within his artistic vernacular; he transforms “Usuyuki” into a recurrent readymade within his own iconography, one that references the transience and the regenerative cyclicality of life. Just like the predetermined format of the American flag, the crosshatch pattern consists of a given sequence of strokes, a compositional template that creates a meticulous set of instructions. Johns suggests that like the flag and the target, the crosshatch pattern can act as a preexistent vehicle through which Johns investigates color and material, although Usuyuki’s origins in the visual barrage of everyday life are not as immediately discernible. Usuyuki exemplifes Johns' inimitable style in which he applies the gestural language of the Abstract Expressionists with his inclination towards 'things the mind already knows' to create a wholly unique motif, dizzying and seductive in its kaleidoscopic prism of thrilling colors.