Lot 7
  • 7

Jasper Johns

800,000 - 1,200,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Jasper Johns
  • Untitled
  • signed, dated 1980 and inscribed STONY POINT, N.Y.
  • ink on plastic
  • 17 by 24 7/8 in. 43.2 by 63.2 cm.


Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC #D-132)
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 1981


New York, Leo Castelli Gallery; and Los Angeles, Margo Leavin Gallery, Jasper Johns Drawings, 1970 - 1980, January - March 1981
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art; Basel, Kunstmuseum Basel; London, Hayward Gallery; and New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, The Drawings of Jasper Johns, May 1990 - April 1991, pp. 258-259, no. 80, illustrated in color


Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, 1996, p. 302 (text)
John B. Ravenal, Jasper Johns and Edvard Munch: Inspiration and Transformation, Richmond and New Haven, 2016, p. 60, fig. 82, illustrated in color

Catalogue Note

Untitled from 1980 emerges from a critical decade between 1973 and 1983 during which Jasper Johns radically embraced pure abstraction and became consumed by a serial crosshatch pattern, substituting his previous investigation into everyday icons with geometric formalism. Unique among Johns’ favored motifs in that it lacks any obvious referential signifier in the real-world, the crosshatch comprises individual units of parallel diagonal lines that together constitute a highly complex network of calligraphic associations.  Reflecting Johns’ inquisitive propensity to explore the same motif through a diversity of mediums, Untitled is rendered in a sumptuous monochrome with black ink pen drawn directly on a plastic sheet. The nonabsorbent property of the plastic medium forces the diluted ink 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. The historical import of Untitled is further testified in that the present work is one of the final studies that Johns produced in anticipation of his immensely important 1981 composition, Between the Clock and the Bed. Residing in the esteemed permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, Between the Clock and the Bed derives not only its title, but also its conceptual concerns and its artistic compositional devices, notably the crosshatch pattern, from Edvard Munch’s famous 1943 self-portrait, Between the Clock and the Bed. Included in a number of Johns's most important exhibitions, including his retrospective of drawings at the Whitney Museum of American Art and National Gallery of Art, Untitled is paradigmatic of the most celebrated aspects of Johns’s universally venerated corpus.

Across the composition as a whole, passages of denser pigmentation are offset by pools of lighter tonalities, culminating in a visually mesmerizing cacophony of crosshatched strokes that possesses the intimacy, luminosity, and voluminous depth of an abstract landscape. The monochrome composition is segmented vertically into three equidistant panels; 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. The plastic overlay encases each stroke of ink, endowing the final composition with a degree of permanence and stability.

Deftly appropriating the gestural strokes of Abstract Expressionist painting, the crosshatches in Untitled do so in a way that denies them the spontaneity and self-referential import of the singular Abstract Expressionist paint stroke. The hatches in Untitled are in fact predetermined, both in the overall layout of the composition and in the execution of each individual stroke. The use of ink on plastic directly addresses and feeds into the Johnsian dialectic between chance and control; the intimacy of gestural expression and the anonymity of predetermined structure. Just as Johns seeks to remove himself as artist from the production of his art by adhering to the predetermined framework of the American Flag or crosshatch system, the uncontrollable interplay between the diluted ink and plastic dictate the parameters of the composition rather than Johns himself. The remarkable tonality and textural depth that the medium unearths belies the apparent simplicity of black ink medium and the “readymade” aspect of the production process. Reveling in the structured, automated spontaneity of the ink on plastic medium, Johns said: “I like the way it removes itself from my touch ... It isn’t difficult to control, if that’s what one wants, but it can be allowed to manifest its own nature in an appealing way. One can apply the wet ink in a way that allows it to change its form as it dries - I like that part of it. ... I like its independence, that it is difficult to tell from the finished drawing what gestures were used to produce it.” (Johns quoted in an interview with Nan Rosenthal, cited in Exh. Cat., National Gallery of Art (and travelling), The Drawings of Jasper Johns, 1990, p. 73)

The origin of the seemingly abstract crosshatch motif derives directly from everyday life, as Johns described of its genesis: “I was driving on Long Island when a car came toward me painted in this way. I only saw it for a second, but knew immediately that I was going to use it. It had all the qualities which interest me – literalness, repetitiveness, an obsessive quality, order with dumbness, and the possibility of a complete lack of meaning.” (Johns, quoted in S. Kent, 'Jasper Johns: Strokes of Genius', pp. 258-59, Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, New York, 1996, p. 259) Just as the American Flag is an object in everyday life whose ubiquity renders it meaningless and abstract, Johns suggests that this seemingly abstract and meaningless crosshatch pattern originates in the visual barrage of the real world. Endowing the geometric abstract pattern with previously unforeseen objectivity in Untitled, the crosshatch becomes a vehicle for Johns to explore how an image is made through medium and method, concentrating thoughtfully on the means of picture-making rather than the end.