The Story Behind Jasper Johns's Iconic and Experimental Crosshatched Works

By Sotheby's

Sotheby’s fall sale of Prints & Multiples includes an exciting group of prints by Jasper Johns, including several iterations of his crosshatched works, illustrating the artist’s experimentation with medium, color, composition and size.

T he 1970s showed a marked change in the work of Jasper Johns as his compositions became more abstract. Beginning with his 1972 painting Untitled, Johns developed his motif of crosshatched lines in increasingly complex systems, experimenting with colors, patterns, mirroring and reversals. According to the artist, the inspiration for his crosshatched works came from a pattern he glimpsed on a car that quickly passed him on a highway, “I only saw it for a second, but knew immediately that I was going to use it. It had all the qualities that interest me – literalness, repetitiveness, an obsessive quality, order with dumbness, and the possibility of a complete lack of meaning.” Over the next ten years, Johns produced many variations on the theme in both paintings and prints.

Jasper Johns, The Dutch Wives (ULAE 196). Estimate $15,000–25,000.

In his encaustic paintings of crosshatches, Johns incorporated collaged newspaper scraps which would create a thick, impasto-like surface. Johns translated this element into his screenprints such as The Dutch Wives (ULAE 196), taking advantage of the photographic possibilities of the medium he prepared collages of newsprint strips that were then translated to photoscreens. The newsprint serves as the composition’s infrastructure and is overlaid with several layers of gray inks thick with wax. Like the paintings on which this print is based, the newspaper strips poke out both at the edges and within the panels, the paler color and text catching the viewer’s eye and confusing the overall reading of the composition.

Jasper Johns, Usuyuki (ULAE 227). Estimate $60,000–80,000.

While it is hard to decipher the meaning behind Johns’ crosshatched works, the titles can sometimes provide clues, as with Usuyuki (ULAE 222) from 1982. In Japanese, usuyuki means thin or light snow. Johns came upon the word while reading and according to the artist, the word refers to a sentimental story from a Kabuki play that has to do with “the fleeting quality of beauty in the world.” With his Usuyuki prints, Johns beautifully evokes this sentimentality with the delicate use of color and the spaced lines of the crosshatch marks.

With his Cicada prints, Johns sought to evoke something completely different. “The Cicada title has to do with the image of something bursting through its skin, which is what they do. You have all those shells where the back splits and they’ve emerged. And basically that kind of splitting form is what I tried to suggest.” Johns illustrated this splitting by employing lines of primary and secondary colors. In a screenprint from 1979, the lines in the central area are red, yellow and blue while the lines at the outer edges are orange, green and violet. Upon the discovery of extra impressions of the 1979 print, Johns overprinted each impression with the primary and secondary colors he had already used, “because different colors of ink overlapping do different things, make different effects.” The end result is Cicada (ULAE 215) the extremely rare set of six beautifully vibrant and densely layered prints. The complete set together provides the viewer with the opportunity to, in Johns’s own words, “…see what it is that connects them and what it is that separates them. Because the experience of one is rarely the experience of the other.”

Jasper Johns, Cicada (ULAE 215). Estimate $300,000–500,000.

Throughout his career, Johns experimented with showing the same idea differently, repeating forms and motifs in various media. As evidenced by his work from the 1970s and early 1980s, the crosshatch motif lent itself exceptionally well to this working method. Printmaking allowed Johns to elaborate on his compositional ideas and his printed oeuvre influenced his painting just as much as his paintings influenced his prints. In fact, the use of crosshatching in both prints and paintings is significant. Johns has taken a technique historically used in printmaking to evoke shade and depth and has made it the subject of his work.

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