Lot 4
  • 4

Jasper Johns

2,500,000 - 3,500,000 USD
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  • Jasper Johns
  • Usuyuki
  • signed and dated 95; signed, dated 95 and inscribed Sharon, CT on the reverse
  • watercolor and pencil on paper
  • 29 1/4 by 46 1/2 in. 74.3 by 118.1 cm.


Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC #D-390)
Acquired by the present owner from the above in February 1996

Catalogue Note

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 Johns’ storied artistic career. An incredibly rich and accomplished exercise in color theory executed on a grand scale, Usuyuki is an exceptional example of Johns’ widely celebrated crosshatch motif, a rare motif within Johns’ iconography that embraces pure abstraction and does not have an obvious referential signifier in everyday life. With the gestural fluidity characteristic of the watercolor medium, strokes of color imperfectly abut and in some places bleed into one another, even as the meticulously delineated borders of the crosshatch system are clearly obeyed. The unifying architectonic structure of the grid, clearly discernible beneath dense layers of color comprising a network of crosshatches, elucidates the process by which Johns arrives at the final composition. Executed in 1995, over two decades after Johns first adopted the crosshatch pattern in 1972, 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.”  

From within the pre-ordained parameters dictated by Usuyuki’s strict 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 paint associated as complementary colors – red and green, blue and orange, purple and yellow – weave together and coalesce to form a coherent and impenetrable system. Usuyuki exhibits chromatic variation not only between units, but also across the composition as a whole; some passages emerge brighter in color, while others appear darker, as if in shadow. Black lines overlaid on top of the colored parallel markings reinforce the repetitive structure of the composition and give the image as a whole a prevailing unity, facilitating a seamless movement across the triptych and endowing the composition with a rhythmic pulse and visual depth. 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.

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.

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.