MAGNIFICENT GESTURES: MASTERWORKS FROM THE DIAMONSTEIN-SPIELVOGEL COLLECTION FULL PROCEEDS TO BENEFIT A NOT-FOR-PROFIT CHARITABLE FOUNDATION
Untitled, 1988 is an expertly executed watercolor and pencil drawing, whose exactitude and accuracy in its representation of its original sources exemplifies Johns' uncanny intellect. Anchoring the composition on the right hand side of the paper is an intimate vignette of a Rubins vase, tilting precariously into a thumbnail image of Picasso’s Woman in a Straw Hat. This particular Picasso held immense appeal for Johns, given its bizarre composition of forms and latent sexuality, which creates a psychological resonance not dissimilar to the art of the Surrealists. Johns has flipped the image so that the woman faces in, her nose pointing to the left toward the Rubins vase, a motif that appears elsewhere in Johns’ output. The Rubins vase illustrates the central challenge Johns continuously explored throughout his career: the figure-ground relationship. Read one way, the Rubins vase emerges as a vessel full of water, and indeed the drop spilling over the right hand edge inclines the viewer to perceive the image as such; however, the ‘negative space’ of the Rubins vase presents two figures in profile facing one another: Picasso's mirrored profile, which arguably is a stand-in in resemblance for Johns' visage. Johns takes as his source for the background of the image, Marcel Duchamp’s Bride, a painting reproduced as an etching by Jacques Villon. Cogs, wheels, tubes and other mechanical shapes fit together to compose a fictional machine that, when examined closely, resolves into a more anthropomorphized figure. As he flipped Picasso’s Woman in a Straw Hat, so too Johns alters Villon’s etching, rotating it 90 degrees and replacing the bottom fifth of the composition with a woodgrain print, a blunt reminder and emphasis on the flatness of the work.
Cubism, Dadaism and the Surreal collide in this one pictorial space, where form and flatness vie for supremacy. The tonality of light tan and gold, both in the woodgrain and reproduction of Villon’s etching, lend incredible depth to this work on paper, yet in the same vein as the Cubists, insist on its flatness. By appropriating the visual vocabulary of both Picasso and Duchamp, Johns situates himself within a larger art historical narrative as the heir to these two great masters who challenged the very nature of what art could or should be in the postmodern world.
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