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Corpse and Mirror
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Corpse and Mirror
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À propos de l'objet

From 1954 onwards, Jasper Johns’ extraordinary body of work has engaged the viewer in an intelligent discourse that forces us to examine the neutrality of the subject as opposed to the highly subjective manner in which random, everyday phenomena are executed. The beauty of a Jasper Johns painting or drawing lies in the artist’s ability to articulate matter on a surface so that it becomes an objective correlative of sensations. Marks of varying tempo, weight and direction caress, bruise, elaborate, disrupt, even erode the familiar forms of everyday emblems – flags, letters, numbers, targets, just as Cézanne’s marks disrupt familiar forms of apples, oranges, tablecloths and jugs. Indeed, there is something quite elusive about both artists’ work – as if they display a melancholy born from stoicism, conjoining solemnity and wit.\nMuch of Johns’ oeuvre is punctuated (and, in turn, inspired) by large canvases that act as heraldic leitmotivs; announcing the arrival of a new set of forms, subjects and (often formal) concerns. Johns’ Flag (1954-55, New York, The Museum of Modern Art) opened up a series of possibilities for the artist, both technical and conceptual, affording the marriage of subjective mark-making with(in) the boundaries of the objective ‘Sign’. The 1960’s is dominated by a painting he executed in 1962, Diver (Norman and Irma Braman Collection), where biographies of personal thought and pools of artistic, literary, historical and philosophical ideas swim across this monumental, multi-paneled surface. Such is also the case with Johns’ Untitled (1972, Cologne, Museum Ludwig), a painting that introduced a brand new ‘motif’ within the body of the Johnsian vocabulary; that of the crosshatch, and acted as a point of departure for Johns for the rest of the 1970’s. Kirk Varnedoe wrote of the painting, “On the right, the first body casts in years, fragmentary, morbidly veristic … are mounted on numbered and color-coded battens. In the middle appear two panels of flagstone pattern, one in encaustic and one in oil … Finally, the picture’s leftmost section is covered by a wholly new motif of colored clusters of hatch marks.” (Kirk Varnedoe in Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, October 1996 – January 1997, p. 269).\nFrom 1974, until the early 1980’s, the crosshatch pattern one finds on the left-hand panel of Untitled became Johns’ exclusive vehicle of expression, certainly in his painting, but also explored and experimented with in a select number of drawings, watercolors and gouaches, of which Corpse and Mirror is an exquisite example. Before examining the present work, it is important to establish the genesis of this crosshatch form. Johns has said that he fleetingly saw such markings on a passing car, and knew immediately that he would employ the motif: “It had all the qualities that interested me – literalness, repetitiveness, an obsessive quality, order with dumbness and the possibility of complete lack of meaning” (Jasper Johns in Sarah Kent, “Jasper Johns: Strokes of Genius”, Time Out (London), December 5-12, 1990, p. 15). This effort to allow both an ‘obsessive’ quality to propel the impulse of this motif, yet still remain ‘dumb’ and ‘have no meaning’ certainly finds a nexus with the Surrealist coda, as well as revealing something of the artist’s personal life and concerns.\nThe crosshatch pattern appealed to Johns because it was so malleable; he felt it could be made to be either highly sophisticated or rudimentary, as in the manner of street art. This variety of possibilities also allowed a key of shadings, from dark to light, that become emotionally interesting. As Varnedoe noted, “Crystalline shimmer, fogged uncertainty, cataclysmic fragmentation, anxious agitation, muffled quiescence – all these possibilities and more could and would be wrested from the motif according to the manner of its application” (Ibid.). Johns manipulated this motif in a number of ways, supplementing this unit of surface order with shifting rules of patterning. These changes were sometimes easily discernable; at other times, the shift in tempo or direction or color or even medium was so subtle that only studied effort would reveal the change. Again, Varnedoe explains this beautifully: “Changes … of the hatch marks were orchestrated by gridding the pictorial field into sequences of boxes whose edges met in programmed relations of contrast, continuity, mirror reversal, and recurrence. On the variably scaled keyboard of these ‘mere traces’ marks that often recall the fingers of a hand, Johns could compose pictures of allover optical dazzle grounded in mathematical orders that eventually reached fugue-like complexity.” (Ibid.).\nAs such, Johns explored the lexis of the crosshatch in a number of different ways. Indeed, as Georges Boudaille noted, “The result is not only decorative, it is meaningful. Like the flags and the concentric circles of the targets, which throughout his career have served as frameworks on which he can experiment with pictorial variations, Johns will use simple frameworks on which to develop his crosshatches, frameworks that often give the painting its title.” (Georges Boudaille, Jasper Johns, New York, 1989, p. 21). Scent (1973-74, Aachen, Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst) and Usuyuki (1977-78, Cleveland, The Cleveland Museum of Art) are paintings that suggest the elusive, yet pervasive order and the gentle, wintry evanescence that these strategies could yield (Usuyuki means ‘fluttering snowfall’ in Japanese, for example). The hatchings take on more expressionist energy, are larger and bolder in their format and execution, in works such as Corpse and Mirror II (1974-75, Collection the artist), for which the present watercolor is a direct study. In this extraordinary painting, Johns creates both a crosshatched pattern on one side of the canvas, and then paints its degraded replication (a ‘blotted’ mirror reversal) on the other. Here, the brushstroke is quicker and tighter, creating the effect of movement much more intensely. Johns’ crosshatch paintings and drawings certainly place him within the pantheon of abstract painting (even if this is not an arena one would normally place Johns’ work). These examples listed above are seminal works for Johns: they remain outside the categories of geometric order or gestural expressionism, and yet partake of aspects of both. It is interesting to note that works from this period are mostly found in museums or important private collections. Indeed, one may see the crosshatchings as a response to the omni-directional, allover compositions of Jackson Pollock’s Abstract Expressionism, yet drier, restrained and more meticulous.\nThe present work shows the means by which Johns generated his celebrated Corpse and Mirror images. The work is composed of six parts, three on the left and three on the right that are established through the initial fold in the sheet horizontally, and then the final fold down the middle vertical axis of the sheet. The marks, in black with underlying accents of red, yellow and blue, are parallel lines reminiscent of the hand or of bite marks. Each group of marks is met by another with different color accents, and in every case the direction of the lines changes, except at the sheet folds, where the same colors meet and where the lines are continued or reversed in direction. The ‘mirrored’ or right hand side of the sheet shares the same composition, except it is now literally, mirrored in direction and, here, blurred, with smoky vapors of white watercolor, to suggest the artist making the final fold, and achieving an imprint of the left-hand side of the sheet. A lilac-gray prevails here over Johns’, now, swollen line. The surface is created in such a manner so as to seem more fractured and less perfect than the ‘Corpse’. Mark Rosenthal notes that the ‘Mirror’ has to be imperfect; that “… there is a range of paradoxical notions concentrated in the word ‘mirror’ and in this mirrored image, with its incongruities and negations indicative of life” (Mark Rosenthal in Exh. Cat., Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Jasper Johns: Work Since 1974, 1988, p. 26). Bordering the extreme edge of the ‘image’ is a border, separating the composition from the sheet, which graduates from an oyster color to peach to tangerine tones. The brighter edge, to the right, serves to project the lighter values one finds in the ‘Mirror’.\nPainting Bitten by a Man (1961, Collection the artist) echoes the compositional unit of the crosshatch cluster quite clearly, however, it is the idea of each ‘unit’ echoing the form of a hand that has more resonance. Hands are a recurring motif in Johns’ work; they can be seen pressed against the paper surface of Study for Skin I (1962, Collection the artist), or outstretched, in the manner of the Crucifixion, in Land’s End (1963, San Francisco, Museum of Modern Art). The idea of the dislocated hand acting as a compositional unit is nowhere more clearly exemplified than in René Magritte’s Find the Woman! (1927 or 1928, Private Collection), again connecting this specific Johnsian vocabulary to Surrealism. Ugo Mulas’ famous photo documentation of Johns at work, delineating a 0-9 pattern in Edisto Beach in 1965, is as much an exploration of the artist’s hand, as it is the artist’s hand at work. In a sense, each cluster of lines may be seen as stamping not only the identity of the work, but also that of the artist himself, so that, again, the most abstract surfaces act as a means of self-expression for this most reticent of artists.\nThe division of the crosshatch images into horizontal partitions alludes to the ‘Exquisite Corpse’, the Surrealists’ game of making absurd images by folding a piece of paper and having each of several artists draw one section without being able to see the other sections, and the title of this watercolor explicitly refers to this game. Further cohering with Surrealist techniques, the crosshatch works allowed the artist to allude to a technique of automatism that is central to the psychology of contemporary praxis and theory. Johns was also inspired by Edvard Munch’s famous self-portrait, Between the Clock and the Bed (1940-42, Oslo, Munch Museum) in which the stoic artist stands next to his bed that is covered with a coverlet showing an almost crosshatched design. Johns would, later, make three paintings of the same title in 1981 in a direct quotation of the Munch work. Of course, Johns’ passion for Picasso is well known, and he would certainly have seen similar designs in many of the artist’s canvases, especially those of the 1950’s, where single striations of paint boldly declared volume or architectonic space.\nThe present watercolor remains one of the most exquisitely executed works on paper by the artist. Corpse and Mirror confirms the importance of ‘drawing’ within Johns’ oeuvre. This work also reveals Johns’ extraordinary handling of the watercolor medium, especially the way he differentiates, through the density of his strokes, between the ‘Corpse’ and the ‘Mirror’. Watercolor, of course, operates in the same way as encaustic, in that once applied to the support, the effect achieved is permanent and irrevocable. This immediate moment of application carries with it many philosophical undertones about the making of art and how one approaches one’s life. Just as the mark cannot change, so do some of our decisions remain unchanged, and their effect on our lives can be telling. The accidents that happen in life are reflected in the accidents he makes with the deliberate blurring of the ‘Mirror’ side of the composition. In essence, this practice allows him the opportunity to think or, better yet, ‘unthink’. What he has delineated here are not objects or things but something more essential. These marks represent signs or streams of Signification that seem impossible to put into form. For all the intellectual thrust of this sheet, Johns here leaves the viewer with the most delicious surface; one that puzzles, yet organizes; dislocates, yet embraces, and reflects the masterful touch of one of the giants of the Twentieth Century.\nSigned and dated 75-76
US
NY, US
US

medium

Watercolor on paper

creator

Jasper Johns

dimensions

16 1/2 by 21 1/2 in. 43 by 54.5 cm.

exhibition

New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, Jasper Johns, January - February 1976 New York, Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Master Drawings of the Twentieth Century, May - June 1998, cat. no. 34, pp. 78-79, illustrated in color

literature

David Shapiro, Jasper Johns Drawings 1954-1984, New York, 1984, plate 120, illustrated Exh. Cat., National Gallery of Art, The Drawings of Jasper Johns, Washington, D.C., 1990, p. 232

provenance

Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC #D75) Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mirani, Zurich Mr. and Mrs. S.I. Newhouse, Jr., New York

signedDate

Signed and dated 75-76

creator_nationality_dates

B. 1930


*Merci de noter que le prix n'est pas recalculé à la valeur actuelle, mais se rapporte au prix final réel au moment où l'objet a été vendu.

*Merci de noter que le prix n'est pas recalculé à la valeur actuelle, mais se rapporte au prix final réel au moment où l'objet a été vendu.


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