Lot 28
  • 28

Jasper Johns

6,000,000 - 8,000,000 USD
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  • Jasper Johns
  • Dancers on a Plane
  • oil on canvas
  • 29 7/8 by 23 3/4 in. 75.9 by 60.3 cm.
  • Executed in 1980-81.


The artist
Merce Cunningham (gift of the above in 1981)
Christie's, New York, November 10, 2009, Lot 3 (consigned by the above)
Acquired by the present owner from the above 


London, Anthony d'Offay Gallery; and Liverpool, Tate Gallery, Dancers on a Plane: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, October 1989 - March 1990, p. 10 (text), p. 97, no. 5, illustrated in color, and p. 131 (text) 
Barcelona, Fundacío Antoni Tapies; Porto, Fundação de Serralves; Vienna, Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig; and Turin, Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Merce Cunningham, February 1999 - June 2000, p. 310, no. 57 (text) 


Jill Johnston, Jasper Johns: Privileged Information, New York and London, 1996, p. 106 (text) and p. 271 (text)
David Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, New York, 1997, p. 249, illustrated in color 
Carol Vogel, "Art Among Friends Is Up for Sale," The New York Times, September 22, 2009, p. C1, illustrated in color
Roberta Bernstein, Heidi Colsman-Freyberger, Caitlin Sweeney, and Betsy Stepina Zinn, Jasper Johns: Catalogue Raisonné of Painting and Sculpture, Volume 3, Painting, 1971-2014, New Haven and London, 2016, p. 82, no. P217, illustrated in color


This work is in excellent condition. Please contact the Contemporary Art Department at +1 (212) 606-7254 for the report prepared by Terrence Mahon. The canvas is framed in a wood frame painted white.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

“Getting to know an artist and their work is a process that might be characterized as a kind of dance.” (Simon Wilson, “Sex, Death and Religion in Jasper Johns’ ‘Dancers on a Plane,’” Royal Academy Magazine, Winter 2017, n.p.) A seamlessly choreographed vision of line, color, and light, Dancers on a Plane is indisputably amongst the most personally significant masterworks of Jasper Johns’ celebrated painterly output. Executed in 1980-1981, Dancers on a Plane is one of three exquisite crosshatch paintings of the same title which the artist painted between 1979 and 1981; in its nuanced palette, the present work specifically reprises the delicate interplay of prismatic light and shimmering hue exhibited in the second, larger painting of the limited suite, held in the collection of the Tate in London since the year it was executed. Acknowledged as a key turning point in the artist’s career, the three Dancers on a Plane paintings pay tribute to Johns’ lifelong friend, the dancer and radically innovative choreographer Merce Cunningham, and to the artist’s longstanding involvement in Cunningham’s dance troupe as an artistic advisor. As the third and final iteration of the theme, Johns selected the present work to give to Cunningham upon completion, memorializing the gift within the work itself by stenciling the letters of the choreographer’s name, interspersed with the title of the painting, along the bottom of the canvas. Following Johns’ gift to his friend and collaborator, Dancers on a Plane remained in Cunningham’s collection until his death in 2009. Exemplifying the intellectual rigor which characterizes Johns’ celebrated artistic practice, the quasi-mirrored symmetry of the crosshatched pattern in the Dancers on a Plane paintings references a Tibetan-Tantric painting of the Buddhist deity Samvara, Lord of the Dance, engaged in ecstatic union with his divine consort. Imperfectly mirrored across the central axis of the painting, the continuous fusion and fission, motion and static of the labyrinthine pattern creates a rhythmic, pulsing energy, transforming the meditative repetition of the crosshatch motif into an abstract signifier for the underlying forces of passion, dance, and creative union.

Dancers on a Plane serves, not only as tribute to the longstanding friendship shared by Jasper Johns and Merce Cunningham, but to the profound creative parallels and shared sensibility between their artistic investigations in the distinct mediums of paint and dance. Between 1967 and 1978, the period in which Johns served as an artistic director to the Cunningham Dance Company, his painterly output was predominantly centered on the crosshatch pattern of the present work; initiated in 1979, the Dancers on a Plane are amongst Johns’ most exquisite embodiments of the motif, serving both formal closure and lasting homage to the influence of Cunningham’s groundbreaking choreography upon Johns’ painterly practice. This tribute is clearly designated in the dedication emblazoned upon the present work: along the bottom of the canvas, John’s spells out “Dancers on a Plane,” interspersing the colored letters with the letters of Cunningham’s name in white. While the precise letters imply intrinsic legibility, Johns evades immediate absorption, creating a tension between familiarity and comprehension highly reminiscent of that inherent to the artist’s Flags, Numbers, and Targets. Describing the destabilization achieved by this intricately intermingled dedication, Simon Wilson reflects: “The sequence is slightly mind-bending and seems to have two purposes. In a complex and playful way, both concealing and revealing the words, yet again in a little dance, it integrates the lettering into the formal structure of the painting—the inscription is simultaneously word and image.” (Simon Wilson, “Sex, Death and Religion in Jasper Johns’ ‘Dancers on a Plane,’” Royal Academy Magazine, Winter 2017, n.p.)

Within the context of the artist’s longstanding investigation of dance as a parallel to his own painterly practice, the inherent dynamism of Johns’ familiar crosshatch in Dancers on a Plane is transformed into a powerful signifier for the energy, motion, and form of the human body. Describing the genesis of the crosshatch in his work, Johns commented: “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.” (The artist cited in Sarah Kent, “Jasper Johns: Strokes of Genius,” Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, New York, 1996, p. 259) 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. In Dancers on a Plane, Johns compounds the suggestion of human presences evoked in the title with a vertical row of white dots at the axis of the painting’s roughly symmetrical halves, powerfully evoking the elegant, ram-rod verticality of a dancer’s spine. Describing the impetus behind his first Dancers on a Plane of 1979, Johns claimed, “I thought of Merce Cunningham and how so often his work seems colored by a kind of unbalanced energy. In the second painting…I tried to show that thought.” (The artist cited in Marjorie Welish, “Jasper Johns,” BOMB, no. 57, 1996, p. 49) Indeed, at the time he founded his dance company, Cunningham wrote, “In applying chance to space I saw the possibility of multi-direction. Rather than thinking in one direction, i.e. to the audience in a proscenium frame, direction could be four-sided and up and down.” (Merce Cunningham, Changes: Notes on Choreography, ed. by Frances Starr, New York, 198, n.p.) A visual echo of Cunningham’s innovative vision, Johns tightly controlled staccato strokes ricochet off each other and erupt in a cacophony of color and line, the inherent tension of the pattern building to an inevitable apex as the momentum is continually renewed, contained, and articulated upon the canvas. Within the predetermined choreography of the crosshatch, shimmering highlights of vibrant hue activate the pattern at unpredictable intervals, such that no two moments within the painting are exactly the same. Describing the remarkably performative experience of the present work,  scholar Mark Rosenthal describes, “The Dancers on a Plane series is another instance of Johns combining various art forms—dance, visual art, and perhaps music in the form of the polyphonic composition—in a single image. It might be surmised that he even has an ambition to create a kind of Gesamtkunsterk, with visual art being just the start of a larger, synthetic experience.” (Exh. Cat., London, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, Dancers on a Plane: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, 1989, p. 131)

Within the kaleidoscopic depths of Dancers on a Plane, Johns negotiates and explores essential, universal dichotomies without ever deviating from a purely abstract vernacular. As eloquently described by scholar Jill Johnston, in the Dancers on a Plane paintings, “Johns explored the theme of love and death in exquisite crosshatch abstractions with ‘incidents’ and painted fragments of the body….the whole series of paintings exalts the dancer as lover, describes the brevity of bliss as understood in ideal unions, equates sex with death, and presents centering images, like mandalas.” (Jill Johnston, Jasper Johns: Privileged Information, New York, 1996, p. 266-267) In its mirrored, quasi-bilateral structure, Dancers on a Plane serves as visual echo of and reference to the Seventeenth Century Nepalese painting which inspired the series; titled Mystical Form of Samvara with Seventy-Four Arms Embracing His Sakti with Twelve Arms, the intricate painting depicts the Tibetan-Tantric god Samvara, entangled in erotic union with the goddess Sakti at the center of a whirling matrix of innumerable arms, hands, faces, and flames. Reflecting upon significance of the source image in considering Dancers on a Plane, one scholar remarks, “In Tantra, the individual being and the universal being are one, and everything that exists in the universe exists in the human body…The scene represents metaphorically the reconciliation through enlightenment of the opposing forces of creation and destruction. Siva has many faces, one of which is Lord of the Dance; in an earlier age, Dancers on a Plane would probably have been called “Portrait of Lord Cunningham as the Lord Siva.” (Exh. Cat., London, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, Dancers on a Plane: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, 1989, p. 10) Operating as a mesmerizing microcosm for universal truths, the irresistible momentum and lyrical grace of Dancers on a Plane articulates profound meaning without ever deviating from a strictly abstracted choreography. As the viewer’s eye dances across the sumptuously variegated surface of shadowy mauves and grays shot through with exhilarating flashes of red, yellow, orange, and blue, the composition oscillates at the juncture of chaos and control, legibility and abstraction, creation and destruction, uniting profoundly disparate themes and imagery while eluding full disclosure; in the artist’s own words, “I think that one wants from painting a sense of life…You may have to choose how to respond and you may respond in a limited way, but you have been aware that you are alive.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, 1996, p. 99)