Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Ghost in the Machine: Jasper Johns at the Harvard Art Museums

Cicada (1979)

Jasper Johns/In Press: The Crosshatch Works and the Logic of Print at Harvard’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum this summer is a testament to the kind of close looking that small exhibitions make possible. With only twenty-one objects spread out in two galleries, the exhibition focuses in on the way Jasper Johns turns a technique from the printmaker’s arsenal – crosshatching – into a motif in his prints, and the resonant meanings that motif opens up. It’s a view of Johns’ oeuvre that you can drink in endlessly. The exhibition came out of an undergraduate seminar at Harvard in the History of Art and Architecture department, and it’s no surprise – the galleries crackle with the excitement of fresh discoveries.

Jasper Johns fills his paintings and prints with familiar symbols like numbers, letters and flags to strip them of their familiar significance and discover within them both a new range of meanings and a new way of making meaning, not by denotation but through allusions that take you into a rich and imaginative landscape. The crosshatch prints, from the 1960s and 1970s, work no differently. The crosshatch is a set of intersecting parallel lines used in engravings as early as the Renaissance to create the illusion of three dimensions through the modeling of shadow and light. By extracting and enlarging the crosshatch and turning it into a figure, rather than one of the miniscule forms out of which a figure is composed, Johns explores the culture of reproduction and mass production. The exhibition also includes works by Johns that relate to the crosshatch prints by engaging “the logic of print” in other ways, such as text, newsprint collage and letterpress.

an example of the crosshatch technique in engraving
Johns’ crosshatch works are love letters to printmaking: the riddle of process, with its precise calculations, and the sensuous variations and synthetic possibilities you can get out of different media. Scent (1976) uses a crosshatch scheme in purple, green and orange, but the sheet is divided into three sections, and in each Johns uses a different media – lithograph, linocut and woodcut – each with its distinct process and effects, modulating the continuous pattern. Cicada (1979), a screenprint, includes strips of newspaper in its crosshatch pattern, and the design is worked out to look as though it were applied by a cylindrical seal, rolled on so that the pattern could continue beyond the frame of the print. Here, Johns’ screenprint, a contemporary technique, evokes a long history of printmaking, from Mesopotamian seals (the pattern) to engraving (the crosshatch motif) to printing presses (the newsprint collage).

In spite of their symbols and abstractions, the prints in this exhibition all bear the shadow, faint but deviously persistent, of the human body. In Coat Hanger I (1960) it’s the body’s conspicuous absence evoked by a single coat hanger suspended on a crooked nail against a mess of jagged black lines. The title of the diptych The Dutch Wives (1975) refers to sex dolls or prostitutes, but the crosshatch pattern, rendered in encaustic (hot wax mixed with pigments) and newsprint collage, is pure abstraction. Here, the collaged strips of the New York Times, with their illegible facts and mass-produced content, echo the title’s suggestion of anonymous, alienated sexual encounters and sexual reproduction.

The Dutch Wives (1975)

If all this makes the work sound hopelessly cerebral, it’s not. It can’t be an intellectual parlor trick, because the work isn’t a puzzle you can solve. Its patterns and symbols create a kind of visual music instead. And the thoughtful layout of the exhibition brings out those sensuous and emotional qualities the motifs shore up for Johns and for the viewer. Unlike the minimalist Sol LeWitt, who was similarly obsessed with seriality (one of his prints is included in In Press as comparative material), Johns sees the logic of print as mysterious and open-ended. It’s not hermetic. As premeditative and mathematical as the prints are, Johns revels impishly in obscuring his own order and design. You can’t follow the logic – you can only enter into it. LeWitt was fascinated by the way the hand could create forms that resembled forms generated by machines; Johns, by contrast, is haunted by the ghosts in the machine, the human experience resonating within and shimmering through the culture of mass production.

The most haunting print in the show is also the most nearly figurative: Skin with O’Hara Poem (1965), a lithograph Johns created through an imprint of his own face and hands. (He covered himself in tusche, the greasy black ink used for lithographic printing.) The clotted ink looks cypher-like, like ink blots, but the face that emerges from within it reminds you of one of those relics like the Veil of Veronica or the Sudiarum of Ovieda said to retain the likeness of Christ through his touch. (The exhibition includes Dürer’s Sudiarum, which both picks up on the allusion and serves as an example of the crosshatch technique in engraving.) Yet the print also looks like the shadow of a man, anonymous and half-realized, trying futilely to reach through the ink and paper to be seen. For all the urgent intensity of this gesture, the print has an elegiac quality. Ink, after all, is used here for duplication and reproduction – it distances us from the individual within.

Skin with O'Hara Poem (1965)

Johns added Frank O’Hara’s poem to Skin with O’Hara Poem two years after he’d made the print, and you can see why it grabbed him. A meditation on inner emptiness in lyrical but fragmented images, the poem opens with clouds, those most insubstantial of forms – “the clouds go soft/ change color and so many kinds” – and goes on to images of the body as “anonymous filler,” seeming to slip as elusively as clouds through the clothes meant to hold it. Like T.S. Eliot’s hoards of the dead crossing London Bridge in The Wasteland (an image he stole from Dante’s Inferno), humanity in O’Hara poem is an undistinguished mass. The poem is not just a perfect companion to the image Johns created for Skin (not to mention the process by which it was made) – it connects beautifully to the crosshatch works, with their sense of life as endless reproduction. There’s an ethereal quality to the crosshatch prints, not unlike in Skin with O’Hara Poem, but shored up by the highly material and mathematical forms. If Johns is engaged with “the logic of print,” then it’s a logic that turns ghostly, like O’Hara’s clouds or Eliot’s dead, and like, the friend who accompanied me to the exhibition offered, the way some people think of the universe, as a mysterious design that we intuit has order but that fills us not with comprehension but baffled wonder. Logic, for Johns, doesn’t necessarily clarify. It’s more like the logos the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus described – the pattern of the cosmos that is never fully disclosed to us even as we’re caught in the crosshairs.

It’s gratifying to see an exhibition where the presentation taps right into what’s most enthralling about the work. (Unlike the blockbuster show Alex Katz Prints I saw at the Boston MFA earlier this summer and wrote about for this site, In Press challenges viewers rather than pandering to their perceived limitations.) The curator, Jennifer L. Roberts (a Harvard professor), and her team of museum staff and students, create a rich, generative concept and layout that combines microscopic attention to detail with a broad and imaginative sense of the work in its entirety. In addition to the Dürer and Sol LeWitt prints, the exhibition includes examples of Mesopotamian seals, a Daumier lithograph from the nineteenth century French newspaper Le Charivari and a Picasso newsprint collage to explore Johns’ interest in newsprint and mass production, and videos of Johns working on two of the prints in the exhibition with the master printers at Simca Print Artists. The didactic labels read like condensed catalog entries – they present real arguments about the work. Their worst fault is occasional clumsiness in the language that makes the technical and conceptual aspects of the work feel unnecessarily obscure. But obscurity is a risk the show takes to get into the thickness of the ideas this work presents – to truly illuminate it. It shares qualities with the best classes I took in college, where the closer you looked at a work of art the more your field of vision would expand, taking in all the complexities and contradictions each detail can release if you treat it to your best attention. As Johns knew in his crosshatch prints, that meticulous focus is at once an exercise in analysis and an act of love for the mysterious power of art and the way it can flood our lives with such resonance.

Amanda Shubert is a doctoral student in English at the University of Chicago. Previously, she held a curatorial fellowship at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts, working with their collection of prints, drawings and photographs. She is a founding editor of the literary journal Full Stop

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