Artist Jasper Johns Mixes It Up

National Gallery Show Looks at His Prints Over a Lifetime

Posted October 7, 2009 at 4:02pm

When his painting “Target With Four Faces— was featured on the cover of ARTnews magazine in 1958, Jasper Johns went from unknown artist to overnight celebrity. More than 50 years later, a modified print of that famous painting — along with 41 other mixed-media prints — is on display at the National Gallery, including some works that have never been publicly exhibited.

Dubbed “working proofs,— rough print impressions combined with drawing, painting, chalk or collage elements, this broad cross-section of Johns’ groundbreaking experimentation with printmaking has been assembled by curator Ruth Fine.

Calling it the most coherent body of his work yet assembled, Fine argues that the working proof theme is a way of thinking about Johns in an entirely new way. “I don’t think Johns has a primary medium. I think that his drawing, his print, his drawing-prints, his sculpture and his painting are all equally primary to him. But one thing is very clear — working in printmaking did have a profound effect,— she said.

The exhibit, organized chronologically, takes up two large rooms in the gallery’s East Building. One room focuses on his 1960s and 1970s work, while the second room displays his later work from the 1980s and 1990s. According to Fine, Johns became bolder in modifying his prints as his career progressed.

The museum chose to organize the works in chronological order, Fine said, because “with an artist like Johns whose work is known and who you probably have seen before, the connections you make between earlier work and later work adds to the understanding of the work.—

The exhibition highlights Johns at his best, showcasing his fine-tuned mastery of printmaking technique and his playful use of color and inversions. In a series titled “The Seasons,— Johns cut up the etching plates from different parts of the series only to fit them back together like jigsaw puzzle pieces in another piece. In another work, “False Start I,— Johns added his own fingerprints into the printmaking process. And in yet another, Johns literally scraped off the printmaking ink as an artistic technique.

And of course, as with his iconic American flag paintings, Johns’ work is peppered with familiar icons and images. His work is filled with references to other artists like Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp. He derives one heavily conceptual work from the Latin alphabet. And in one work, “After Holbein,— he takes a familiar Hans Holbein portrait and reprints four times over it in an Andy-Warhol-style matrix, playing with color and inversion.

In short, Johns’ mixed-media printmaking is a fascinating glimpse into an often-overlooked facet of the artist’s work. Fine and the team at the National Gallery have acquired and assembled an absorbing collection of work from an important American artist.

The exhibit runs from Oct. 11 through April 4. More information is available at nga.gov.