On ViewCraig F. Starr
Jasper Johns: Crosshatch
November 8th, 2019 – January 18, 2020
The exhibition Jasper Johns: Crosshatch begins with Dancers on a Plane (1982), a small graphite drawing densely packed with the artist’s familiar crosshatching: an interlocking pattern of rotating parallel lines. This particular drawing—like other works that bear the same title—is bisected by a faint dashed line that aligns with images of a phallus and vulva positioned at the top and bottom of the frame. Through these symbolic genitalia Shiva, lord of destruction and dance, meets with the goddess Shakti in a tantric union of spiritual ecstasy that, in this case, visually resolves in black and white abstraction. The work is, in part, an ode to Johns’s longtime friend and sometimes collaborator, Merce Cunningham, and it is an appropriate beginning to this well-choreographed selection of 11 works, which illustrate a decade of experimentation grounded by the strict limitations of the artist’s crosshatch methodology.
Spread across three rooms, the exhibition is an intimate showcase of how a basic graphic motif can be deployed in a diverse array of mediums and styles, with works ranging from graphite wash on paper, to oil on canvas, watercolor, acrylic, and collage. Curated by Agnes Gund, the exhibition moves from one material approach to another in a focused exploration of Johns’s desire to use the crosshatch as a visual structuring principle for “simple mathematical variations” that consider “how space can be divided.”1 But what emerges when these divisions take place? What is unearthed, and what meanings, conversely, are submerged below the surface?
A large, horizontal, untitled work anchors Craig F. Starr’s front room with thick strokes of primary color. This painting introduces a linguistic element, as Johns’s deftly handled acrylic paint allows collaged newsprint underneath to visibly surface between brushstrokes, revealing broken lines of text—like bits of found poetry or a radio signal coming in and out of reception. The exhibition itself is full of these small elements that inform and add context to the ubiquitous hatch marks.
Sharing a room with Dancers on a Plane and the untitled piece are two works from the artist’s “Cicada” (1979) series. The first is in oil on canvas, and uses ample white space to bring contrast to vibrant marks painted in red, green, yellow, blue, and purple. The second “Cicada” (1979) work is also an oil painting, but here negative space is filled in with primer-like gray, giving the image a denser, more crowded feeling. Johns states: “The Cicada title has to do with the image of something bursting through its skin which is what they do. They have shells where the back splits and they emerge, and that basically splitting form is what I am trying to suggest.”2 Viewed in this light, the two works suggest different moments in the life cycle of this biological bursting through, as if the bright open lines of the first painting are concealed underneath the flat gray of the second, waiting to emerge.
Throughout the show, Johns continues to experiment with materials and the compositions of his pieces. Further into the exhibition, three works hang on different walls of the gallery’s central office area. In one, a pastel drawing on paper, the cross hatching is obliterated in the top panel. Another oil on canvas features what appear to be renderings of smaller paintings superimposed over the work’s right side. One detail that stands out is the representation of stamped rings of paint that appear more emphatically on a later, larger work in the exhibition. While the meanings of these marks are not immediately clear, Johns's historical references are more direct. All three works in the central office are titled Between the Clock and the Bed, a reference to the 1940–43 painting Self-Portrait Between the Clock and the Bed by Edvard Munch, which features a portrait of the artist standing between a grandfather clock and a bed with a crosshatched quilt—a clear parallel of Johns’s preferred compositional format
Munch is not the only connection between the deceptively formalist works on view here and the canon of art history. The gallery’s back room contains three pieces from Johns’s “Corpse and Mirror” (1974-75) series, whose title can be tied both to the Surrealist game Exquisite Corpse and, more abstractly, to Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915–1923). This connection is clearest in Corpse and Mirror II (1974–75), which anchors the back wall. Consisting of four joined and framed canvases, this work uses a harmonious rotation of yellow, red, and blue hash marks, with paint extending over the edges of the conjoined canvases and into the rim of the frame, dripping in places—a bodily messiness. Indeed, in the catalogue for Johns’s 1986 print retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, curator Riva Castleman makes argues convincingly that in his drips “Johns might have been pursuing Duchamp's idea of shooting paint-covered matches... to emulate the ejaculations of the ‘bachelors.’”3
Corpse and Mirror II functions as a coda to the exhibition, which began, recall, with the sexualized marginalia of Dancers on a Plane. In between these two works, Gund has presented pieces dealing with death, transformation, and rebirth, all tethered to the same repeating motif of crosshatching. Taken as a whole, the exhibition belies Johns’s initial impulse to produce images that function as “simple mathematical variations.” There is nothing simple about the lines that form the connective tissue of these works.
- Quoted in E.J. Sozanski, “The Lure of the Impossible," in Jasper Johns: Interviews and Writings (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1996), 224-226.
- Martin, Katrina, dir. and prod. Hanafuda / Jasper Johns (film of artist working on silkscreens at Simca Print Artists). 1980. 33 min.
- Riva Castleman, Jasper Johns: a print retrospective. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1986), 31.