Lot 12
  • 12

Jasper Johns

2,500,000 - 3,500,000 USD
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  • Jasper Johns
  • Numbers
  • signed and dated 2006
  • ink and crayon on Japanese paper mounted on Torinoko paper
  • 38 3/8 by 32 3/8 in. 97.5 by 82.2 cm.


The Artist
Acquired by the present owner from the above by 2008


New York, Matthew Marks Gallery, Jasper Johns Drawings 1997-2007, February - April 2008, p. 25, no. 24, illustrated in color

Catalogue Note

The astoundingly prolific career of Jasper Johns constitutes an intense fascination with semiotics and the uncertain status of an object and its literal representation. His astounding Numbers, from 2006, is a riveting expression of one of his most often referenced subjects in his most favored gray scale palette. From flags to targets to maps, Johns’s output integrates abstraction with representation and brings to the fore the viewer’s agency in perceiving these everyday and commonplace signs. Numerals first appeared in Jasper Johns’ work in Construction with Toy Piano from 1954, and would remain a central motif of the artist’s works for decades to come; indeed, he has explored the form of numbers more than any other subject or series in his career. By 1960, Johns had devised four discrete formats for investigating the infinite variations of these numerals: FiguresNumbers0 - 9 and 0 through 9. The Figures series comprises single numbers; 0 - 9 presents the numerals in an abbreviated grid, either together or as separate works to be hung together in a grid format. The works comprising the final series 0 through 9 are single images in which the numbers have been superimposed onto one another, creating a cacophonous energy that nevertheless hints at the edges and shapes of the numbers. A regimented ink and crayon drawing, the present work is a rare large-scale work from the Numbers series, of which many painted, drawn, encaustic and sculpmetal versions reside in museum collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. This drawing is unique in that Johns drew the image onto Japanese paper, leaving a thin margin at the edges of the composition, then carefully mounted it onto Torinoko paper, an elegant material for printmaking and drawing. This additional layer of paper creates a richly textured surface that brings to the fore Johns’ artistic process and singular goal of refreshing and challenging ‘things the mind already knows.’

Unlike the output of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, who embraced intuition and spontaneity, Johns’ corpus, and the present work in particular, reveals a prescribed and premeditated approach. Eleven rows of evenly sized rectangles stack across this work on paper in eleven orderly columns, creating a complex and prescribed grid of 121 boxes in various gray tones. Each distinct module presents a neatly demarcated numeral from 0 to 9. In the present work, however, each small figure contributes to a larger whole, the series of numbers repeating itself eleven times in an almost meditative rhythm. The top left corner of the grid remains blank, so that each number shifts position as the rows progress. The final ten figures in the last row mirror the top row in a harmonious conclusion, the repetitive exercise fully exhausted. Each number undergoes several transformations, demonstrating Johns’ ambition to record as many iterations of a predetermined pattern of an image, calling to mind his famous self-instruction from an early workbook: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” Within the structured lattice of squares, Johns has modulated the saturation of both ink and crayon in each number, so that the final composition of the cobblestoned numbers is orderly and variegated, invariable yet variable. The gradated hues of gray, from the palest washes to dark lines of black ink lend the figures an almost sculptural quality, negated entirely by the boundary between the drawing and its background of Torinoko paper.

The present work is also distinguished by its monochromatic palette, gray being among the artist’s most favored colors in which to incisively explore the various motifs and series of his output. Indeed, the importance of the monochrome in Johns’ oeuvre was crystallized in the 2008 exhibition Jasper Johns: Gray at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. James Rondeau wrote: “In choosing to articulate gray versions of nearly every key pictorial theme, Johns encourages comparisons across, not just within, related bodies of work. Gray allows the artist to pose allied questions within disparate fields of inquiry, to see something and then to resee it differently. If painting is a language, as Johns, descended from [Ludwig] Wittgenstein, has often suggested, then gray can be inflected much like a noun, verb or adjective. More accurately, gray is all pervasive, like syntax. Gray exists in Johns’ work not just as color, but also as idea, condition, and material - a thing in and of itself.” (Jasper Johns quoted in James Rondeau, “Jasper Johns: Gray,” Exh. Cat., Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago (and travelling), Jasper Johns: Gray, 2007-2008, p. 28) Divested of color, the marks on the paper become even more profound in their subtle nuances: the curved 0 almost pulsing into the straight edge of 1, the sinuous right hand contour of 2 mirroring the concavities in 3. Black ink mottles the gray crayon in unexpected patterns across the numbers, individuating them from the predetermined grid. From this naturally occurring geometry, however, a diagonal line emerges in the upper left corner, slanting down the hypotenuses of the 4s and creating a sharp-edged abstract element despite a prescribed graph of numbers. Whereas true colors have variable reflective properties, absorbing or reflecting light rays that allow the eye to perceive its color, gray is unique in that it produces no afterimage, making it the most literal of colors and the ideal tool for a literal artist. By negating variances in color, Johns focuses the viewer’s attention on the mimetic work, effectively shrinking the gap between a representation and the thing itself.

Numbers from 2006 is a mature example of Johns’ exploration into the most significant issues that dictated his oeuvre. This particular Numbers from 2006 is striking for its superlative size, not atypical for a painting but certainly rarer in the medium of works on paper. Not rare to Johns’ output, however, is his constant negotiation of the relationship between the object and its representation, a signature riddle he underscores in the present work with the application of Numbers on an additional sheet of paper. For its immediately recognizable subject matter, monochromatic palette and iconic status within Johns’s oeuvre, the present work is an extraordinary monument to the artist’s most paramount output.