One of the most acclaimed and influential American artists of the 20th century, Jasper Johns is rarely considered in relation to monochromatic art. Yet single-color experimentations have figured prominently in his work since 1955. The color gray–ranging from warm to cool, light to dark, stringent to lush–has been a singular and unparalleled preoccupation for the artist. Initially serving as a means of emphasizing the physical properties of an object by draining it of color, the artist's employment of gray has evolved into a larger concern, an examination of the condition of gray itself. Gray exists in Johns's work not just as color, but also as idea and material. Jasper Johns: Gray addresses the practice of creating abstract and representational images imbued with the formal and conceptual associations of a single color.
The first use of the word "gray" in a work by Jasper Johns occurs in the oil painting False Start, in which it appears three times, surrounded by other words naming (but not labeling) colors. The words, which are not intended to match the colors but in some cases do, have been stenciled on the canvas. By embracing this self-conscious, painterly mode of application and simultaneously setting color at odds with language, False Start dismantles the expressive use of gesture and color and creates discordance between what one perceives and reads.
Immediately following False Start Johns made a closely related painting in black, white, and gray titled Jubilee. Superficially, Jubilee is simply a grisaille copy of False Start. But the more sedate Jubilee is not merely a version of the former; it is an elaboration on its theme. If False Start succeeds in divorcing gesture, color, and emotionalism, Jubilee underscores the differences between thinking in color and thinking without color. For Johns, the refusal of color is its own affirmative category.OBJECTS
A group of early gray encaustics (produced with wax-based paint that forms a skin when dry) created from 1956 to 1959, emphasizes the idea of painting as object. In 1965, the artist stated: "The canvas is object, the paint is object, and object is object. Once the canvas can be taken to have any kind of spatial meaning, then the object can be taken to have that meaning within the canvas."
In these canvases, the artist used gray to establish uniformity between flat surfaces and dimensional objects, whether real or implied, using everyday items such as a stretched canvas, a drawer, a ball, a newspaper, and a coat hanger. With their restrained facture and emphasis on commonplace subjects, these works offered an alternative to the visual and critical rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism, the dominant mode of painting in the 1950s. The choice of gray advanced the cause of literalism (the exploration of paint and canvas themselves as objects) most explicitly because it avoided the distraction of emotion suggested by color. "I used gray encaustic to avoid the color situation," he stated. "The encaustic paintings were done in gray because to me this suggested a different kind of literal quality that was unmoved and unmovable by coloration and thus avoided all of the emotional and dramatic quality of color."SCULPTURE
Johns's principal foray into sculpture coincided with his exploration of painting as object. Like the early encaustic paintings, the sculptures present recognizable objects, such as lightbulbs and a flashlight. These sculptures are made as renderings or casts, and in one case contain an actual object. The subjects reveal Johns's fascination with light and vision.
Johns's engagement with gray in sculpture relates directly to the materials he used. Sculp-metal, a suspension of aluminum powder in vinyl and resin, appealed to Johns because of its versatility. It could be left as a matte gray or polished to shine like aluminum; it could be modeled to create three-dimensional forms or thinly applied over preexisting objects. In other cases, Johns "grayed" objects or materials that are not naturally that color. A good example occurs in Light Bulb (1960), an edition of four sculptures cast in bronze: Johns painted one gray and kept it for himself.FLAGS
The American flag, the subject Johns turned to for his breakthrough 1954–55 painting (now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York), is a recurring motif that the artist has employed in complex and varied ways over decades. Like his targets, maps, numbers, and alphabets, the flag fulfilled Johns's interest in depicting "things the mind already knows"—predetermined, recognizable images that allowed him to focus on surface and execution rather than subject matter. His use of the flag is not limited to the well-known, red-white-and-blue encaustics and their various reappraisals. Since the mid-1950s the flag has appeared in approximately 30 paintings, 14 prints, and 50 drawings. Flag (1958) is an example of the latter. Johns continued to use the motif through the 1990s. In addition to single flags, he has produced single flags set within larger fields, multiple flags set within a single field, and backward or vertical flags. Among his many variations on the flag motif, Johns has painted 11 monochrome versions, 7 of which are gray. By subjecting the flag to variations of palette, position, and repetition, Johns further divorced it from its symbolic meaning and focused on his engagement with the materials. In 1990 the artist reflected on this body of work: "The flag images exist at different levels of recognizability. Some are in red, white, and blue, and are easy to see. There's a gray one that I think is difficult to determine as a flag."
TARGETS AND MAPS
Like his first flags, Johns's early targets—painted in red, yellow, and blue—are easily identifiable, iconic images. The gray encaustic and Sculp-metal targets, with pronounced surface texture and achromatic palette, diminish the subject's pictorial presence, thwarting the viewer's immediate visual comprehension of the image as a target. A similar, if less dimensional, effect is achieved in a drawing Target (1958). Here the artist employed tight, short strokes of conté crayon in his now-familiar "W" mark to at once delineate and complicate the concentric rings of the target.
The map of the United States proved a logical succession to the flags and targets that had become Johns's signature images. The artist's engagement with the map motif began in 1960, when he was given a small, printed version of it. Johns covered the diagram with thick, contoured strokes of gray encaustic, obscuring many of the recognizable demarcations and thereby testing the image's legibility as a map. In later articulations of the motif, including the monumental gray Map (1962), the state borders are more clearly defined, and the names of states are labeled with stenciled lettering.NUMBERS AND ALPHABETS
Concurrent with his early flags and targets, Johns employed numbers and alphabets, stenciled, hand-drawn or painted. The alphabets are contained in gridded, sequential progressions, as in the drawing Gray Alphabets (1960). The painting Gray Alphabets (1956) takes as its subject the building blocks of the written word, which are incorporated into a collaged newspaper substructure. Indeed, newspaper figures prominently throughout Johns's production, as the artist felt it provided a rough texture and activated the surface in a way resonant with the artist Robert Rauschenberg's observation that "the first stroke in the painting had its own unique position in a gray map of words." Gray Alphabets also plays with the graying of the black-on-white printed elements when seen from the distance required to take in the full canvas. It is not only Johns's first alphabet painting but also the first in which the word "gray" appears in the title.
Johns produced numbers in four distinct arrangements: sequentially in groups (numbers); isolated on their own (figures); within a framework of 10 units (09); or superimposed over one another, as in 0 through 9 (1961). These motifs were articulated in a variety of media—encaustic, acrylic, Sculp-metal, aluminum, lithograph—in well over 100 works produced from the mid-1950s through the late 1960s. Johns's first lithographic motif, in fact, was a large "0," which would become the basis for the 09 editions begun in 1960 and completed in 1963. Three distinct versions of the motif were executedin black, gray, and color.MOOD CHANGES...SELECTIVELY
The year 1961 was a watershed in Johns's art. In January, he purchased a beach house on Edisto Island, South Carolina, and began to spend notable portions of his time outside of New York City. The house was isolated, the island sparsely inhabited. Some of the works Johns produced in Edisto understandably evidence a melancholic engagement with the sea and with the intense emotionality of the poetry of Frank O'Hara and Hart Crane. In Memory of My Feelings–Frank O'Hara is a provocatively brooding painting. Part of the title is borrowed from one of O'Hara's poems about the pain of lost love. Gray covers over and incorporates color—red, yellow, blue, purple, and orange. The shape and composition of the work clearly suggest a flag but Johns obscured the form underneath a morass of gray.
Much of the work of this period is gray. Johns himself acknowledged the attendant changes in his art. In 1970, while arranging a chronological listing of his works, he commented, "the mood changes," when he got to 1961. Importantly, this was the year Johns's influential working relationship with the artist Robert Rauschenberg dissolved. But the limited associations of gray with such moods, while valid up to a point, have resulted in an oversimplification of the meaning of Johns's use of the color. An understanding of the fullness and importance of gray in his art before and well after the early 1960s is essential; the flurry of gray pictures during the Edisto years is therefore less anomalous and not exclusively dependent on biographical readings. To be sure, "the mood changes," if selectively. There are gray pictures that correspond to, or seem intended to evoke, feelings of anger and sadness; at the same time, there are others that evince levity.DEVICES
In the early 1960s, Johns introduced a new process-driven motif referred to as "device". To make these works, the artist applied or smeared a passage of medium with a studio or household object (other than a paintbrush) that is often affixed to the canvas. Johns's devices include a ruler, wooden slat, and broom; like a brush, they are extensions of the artist's hand. In fact, he sometimes replaced the actual device with an imprint of his own arm.
Since Jubilee (1959) the words red, yellow, and blue have often been submerged under layers of gray paint. This is most explicit in the painting Periscope (Hart Crane) (1963), in which the obliteration of color approaches a form of elegy. In this painting, color comes undone, suggested by the occasional backward and upside-down application of stenciled letters that name but do not represent colors. Johns thinly applied black and gray paint across the surface, most likely with a cloth, allowing the washes to run and drip down the canvas and fall between the superimposed letters. The painting is an homage to the suicidal leap and drowning of American poet Hart Crane. Johns drew inspiration from a passage in the "Cape Hatteras" section of Crane's epic 1930 poem, The Bridge:
Johns's use of the imprint of his own arm likely references reports that the last glimpse of Crane was his arm, reaching out in desperation from the sea.The captured fume of space foams in our ears—
Johns made the first Skin drawings in 1962, as studies for a sculpture that was never executed. To create the drawings, Johns pressed his oiled body against paper, and then rubbed the paper with charcoal in order to accentuate the stain. The resulting impressions are direct records of the artist's body, which itself served as a device or tool. A form of self-portraiture, the shadowy imprints introduce imagery of the artist for the first time.
A distinct arrangement of hatched marks first appeared in Johns's work in 1972. Johns has frequently recounted that he glimpsed the pattern on a passing car. The design is commonly called crosshatch, although in Johns's work the lines rarely cross. Crosshatching is traditionally a graphic method of adding shading to suggest depth and volume, though Johns's marks emphasize flatness, as is evident in Savarin. The crosshatch became the dominant motif in his paintings from 1973 to 1982.
In 1980, a full eight years after his first use of the crosshatch motif, Johns received a postcard reproduction of Edvard Munch's Between the Clock and the Bed (1940–42; Munch Museum, Oslo). In this late self-portrait, Munch, near death, depicted himself in his bedroom, standing in front of the open door to his studio; the bright red and dark blue pattern of the bedspread is rendered in a fashion markedly similar to Johns's crosshatches. Between 1980 and 1982, Johns, inspired by the Munch work, made several drawings and two large paintings based on the crosshatch motif. These works culminate in Johns's monumental grisaille encaustic painting Between the Clock and the Bed. This picture is the last major independent articulation of the crosshatch (as of this writing). Johns incorporated touches of red, blue, yellow, green, ocher, pink, and purple, but the painting is predominantly gray. For whatever reasons, Johns chose to end his extended treatment of the crosshatch motif with this distillation in gray.SELF HISTORY/ART HISTORY
With the conclusion of the Crosshatch paintings, Johns's art shifted to a new representational style. Imagery from both art historical sources and his own personal history appeared in his work during the 1980s. This new mode coalesced in a group of pictures begun in 1983 in which Johns rendered the bathroom wall and door in his New York home as they appeared from the artist's perspective while soaking in the tub. Racing Thoughts, from this series, plays on the notions of adding, subtracting, layering, and connecting. Every image or object depicted was a personal possession in Johns's studio or home. Racing Thoughts is a conceptual collage, a veritable self-portrait, its elements not unlike items posted on a bulletin board. A color version of this work was created before this gray version, which relieves some of the dense and self-referential content.
In a series of four paintings collectively known as the Seasons, Johns assembled artifacts and seasonal symbols to represent epochs of his life. Winter is the only work in this series that is predominantly gray. In this picture, Johns's use of gray is determined and consuming. He uses gray to cover over and mingle with touches of red, yellow, and brown. Johns's shadow appears as a gray figure against the bricks on the right side. The obvious subject is climate and weather—specifically, snow. Notions of a fragile body are also appropriate with this theme. Chromatically, gray signifies old age.CATENARY
The Catenary works (1997–2003), one of Johns's largest, self-contained series to date, announce his emphatic return to working with gray. The shared motif in this series is the catenary, from the Latin catena (chain). The word, most often used in reference to the engineering of suspension bridges, describes the curve imposed by gravity on a string suspended from two points. The paintings eloquently recall the artist's works from the 1950s and 1960s, and the Catenary series can be understood as a self-conscious examination of his ongoing search for ways to mediate between a flat picture plane and a fully dimensional world. Gray clarified not only his palette but also his very approach to painting: Johns opted to pare down what had become a surfeit of images and devices in favor of something more rigorously abstract. Near the Lagoon is a testament to pure, monochrome abstraction. Overtly connected to his own art and the history of art, the grays of Near the Lagoon are not the same grays as those found in earlier works. They are lighter and more open, integrated with rather than strictly opposed to color. The earlier dirge of gray seems finally to have dissolved in a fugue of open-ended virtuosity.
Some of Johns's most recent work is unified by his continuing, if selective, use of gray. In several pictures, Johns returned to an earlier motif: the flagstone pattern, which he had first glimpsed from a passing car on a wall in Harlem in 1967. Gray articulations of this pattern did not fully materialize in his painting until 2005. That year, the artist turned to a brightly colored, unfinished Crosshatch painting from 1983, covering the hatches with a monochrome rendering of the flagstone motif in gray oil. The suggestive title Within calls direct attention to the now largely concealed content of the painting.