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Art Review

Meaning, mystery in prints by Jasper Johns

Harvard exhibit narrow but deep

Jasper Johns’s “Cicada” (1979), a screenprint from 16 screens.harvard art museums

Jasper Johns is an artist one finds difficult to love, and then, on reflection — and often against a backdrop of crisis or doubt — comes to love wholeheartedly, soberly, sincerely. He is an artist for grown-ups. He might seem reticent, puzzling, at times willfully tangled up in himself. But if you are struggling to make sense of art, life, or any conceivable combination thereof, he is not the bafflingly forked path he can seem, but rather a guide, one who won’t take your hand but will instead send you back out on your own, your sense of the mystery renewed and expanded.

Johns, 82, is one of the giants of modern art. If his work derives directly from that holy trinity of modern art — Cezanne, Picasso, and Duchamp (Father, Son, and errant Ghost) — there are times when it seems every major postwar development in art, from Pop and Minimalism to Process Art and Conceptualism, derives from him.


Jasper Johns’s “The Dutch Wives’’ (1975).HARVARD ART MUSEUMS

At other times, however, he cuts a lonely figure, not unlike his hero Cezanne: sidelined before his death, his work growing ever more perplexing, clotted, and opaque, his onetime champions now admitting skepticism and disillusion.

Now is a great time to look at Johns again. He is the subject of a narrow but deep and silently stirring exhibition at Harvard’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum: “Jasper Johns/In Press: The Crosshatch Works and the Logic of Print.” It’s a show with more than a slight whiff of the academy, but that’s forgivable; it’s Harvard, after all. And more to the point, the show started its life as an academic exercise: a tutorial, run by Jennifer L. Roberts, a Harvard professor of history of art and architecture.

Roberts and a team of four conscientious Harvard juniors, Phillip Y. Zhang, Mary Potter, C. Andrew Krantz, and Jacob Cedarbaum, have transformed their enquiries about a single painting by Johns — “The Dutch Wives,” on long-term loan to the museum from the artist — into a revelatory investigation into the importance of printmaking to Johns’s work. The show is accompanied by an excellent printed catalog with an essay by Roberts, as well as an online catalog with essays by the four students.


If the exhibition itself is, in scale, a mere footnote to Susan Dackerman’s magnificent recent exhibition at the same museum about the relationship between early printmaking and science in the Renaissance, it is one of those footnotes one reads with avidity, surprise, and gratitude.


Focusing on Johns’s so-called “crosshatch” works, it contains just 23 objects — among them 12 prints, one painting, and two drawings by Johns, as well as contextualizing prints by Sol LeWitt, Frank Stella, Honoré Daumier, and Albrecht Dürer and a collage by Picasso. There are also three Mesopotamian cylinder seals from the museum’s collection.

What are we to make of it all, and how might it change the way we look at Johns?

One of the reasons Johns’s work is so difficult to write about — so tender to the touch — is that it is stuffed with allusions and clues that amount to a kind of secret order or logic, and thence to what might be thought of as “meaning.” And yet, frustratingly, it goes out of its way to obscure meaning.

That’s because Johns is not interested in clear meanings. Clear meanings are for children and lawyers. He is interested instead in life, and is rightly contemptuous of critics and academics who try to act as village explainers of his work.


When, in a 1965 interview, the critic David Sylvester followed up on an answer to an earlier question by asking, “Do you know why?” Johns said, “No, but I can make up a reason.” It was not a cantankerous joke, I think, but an honest answer, full of gentle forbearance.

Still, the question of meaning, in Johns’s art as in life, does not simply evaporate. And Johns has pursued it sincerely in a diverse body of work that continually prods and pokes at the great mysteries of mortality, creation, and sensuality.

“The final suggestion,” he said in that same interview, “the final gesture, the final statement [in a work of art] has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement.” Johns is just as interested, in other words, in the inevitable collapse of meaning, and what is left in its wake — the “helpless statement.”

As the late art historian Kirk Varnedoe put it: “The important thing about order for Johns is that it be degradable. The order itself is hardly as important as the demonstration of its vulnerability or fragility.”

Johns’s work — and here we get closer to the real interest of this exhibition — is also heavily involved in the mystery of its own making. “The process of my working involves this indirect unanchored way of looking at what I’m doing,” he said.


Which is where printmaking comes in.

Johns is revered in the somewhat specialist field of fine art printmaking as one of the most inventive and brilliant practitioners alive. Outside that world, however, prints are treated as subordinate — in both importance and market value — to paintings.

Johns didn’t take up printmaking proper until the early ’60s. But as Roberts shrewdly points out, his earlier work already drew on processes connected with printing, in the form of stencils (“among the most ancient forms of print technology” writes Roberts), schematized color combinations (recalling the processes of color separation in printing), and newspaper collage (newspapers being an obvious form of industrialized printing).

What interested Johns about printmaking is hard to pin down — not because it is elusive but because it is so multivalent.

By the ’60s, the dawn of the Pop era, printmaking had come to be associated with mass reproduction and “de-skilling” (one thinks of Andy Warhol’s brilliant adoption of screenprinting techniques to produce commanding paintings). But, as Roberts points out, Johns saw beyond this facile association. Instead, he saw in printmaking numerous more complex associations relating to the way works of art occupy space, how they relate to the body, and to mediated information — the “things,” as he famously said, “the mind already knows.”

Printmaking, for Johns, remains a highly skilled and physical affair, not something done blithely or by rote. Every aspect of its processes seems to intrigue him, as Roberts notes: the way a mark or gesture made on an etching plate or lithographic stone gets not just displaced (from, say, the stone to the paper) but deferred (the print is made later), reversed (left becomes right and right left), split (a motif with two colors must be separated, one color printed first, then the other), and delegated (it is usually the printer, not the artist, who is responsible for printing the final image).


All of this aligned with Johns’s desire to provide an antidote to the rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism, in which each stroke of the brush was endowed with the drama of heroic self-expression. His preference was for a more fully human equilibrium between self-expression and reticence — something close to what Randall Jarrell called “half the expression of a wish and half the defense against the wish.”

The processes of printmaking expressed precisely these defensive, mediated mechanisms, and at the same time pushed to the fore more subtle leakages of personality.

There was also the question of the connection between printmaking and space. Since the beginning of his career, Johns had been interested in finding ways to suggest space without distracting from the reality of each work’s physical presence. Without, in other words, using traditional, window-on-the-world illusionism. Like the Abstract Expressionists, he wanted real, not virtual.

Printmaking provided a way. Its logic — and this is crucial to the whole show’s radical premise — permeated not just Johns’s prints, but his paintings and drawings, too.

Johns made the crosshatch works again and again over more than a decade in different media. The show reminds us that, far from creating arbitrary patterns, Johns’s hatching was highly systematized and deliberate. And its systems related both to printmaking (engraving uses complex patterns of hatching to create the illusion of light and shade) and to space.

He used hatched patterns that, for instance, suggested mirror imaging — or a fold through space hinging on a central spine. Or he used patterns that cut out at one edge only to resume at the other, suggesting that they might be wrapped around a cylinder (hence the inclusion in the show of those Mesopotamian cylinder seals, an early form of printmaking whereby a pattern carved in relief on the cylinder was rolled onto wax or clay, leaving an impressed pattern).

In all these ways, Johns shuns the game of traditional illusionism in art — a game we take for granted to the extent that we momentarily forget our bodies and the real space we occupy — and leads us into more subtle games, using hatching as a code for the depiction of space.

These new games keep our mind tethered to the work’s physical presence. But they also activate all manner of spatial associations: hinging, folding, turning, twisting, slumping.

In other works, Johns seems fascinated by the way prints are involved in the inevitable distancing and deterioration of images, as ink dries up, plates become worn, acid bites too deeply, and information becomes harder to discern, less meaningful.

One screenprint, comprising hatch marks over photographed newsprint, is called “Usuyuki,” a Japanese word for light snow — and a metaphor for transience. Varnedoe has described the “steady murmur of potential meaning in the newspaper clippings beneath the strokes” in this work. The key word here is “potential.” The work is actually a beautiful evocation of white noise.

Johns’s paintings and drawings are full of allusions to printmaking. “Dutch Wives,” the best example, not only uses mirror imaging, with the “second” image appearing as a degraded version of the first; it also uses strips of newsprint in highly calculated ways (the pattern it sets up visibly breaks down).

The painting’s title is slang for prostitutes or sex dolls. So here, too, as Jennifer Quick points out in a catalog entry, we might think not only of sex (and in particular straitened, anonymous sex: no full-throated expression of healthy physical bliss for Johns . . . forgive the unintended puns!) but also of the process of pressure and release that is common to all printmaking.

The implications of this astonishingly complex investigation of space, printing, and physical presence seem endless. And they seem particularly poignant for those of us who work at newspapers, where the gargantuan physicality of printing is impossible to ignore.

The Globe is printed on site; we journalists can see the massive cylindrical presses rolling every day. They amount to a powerful metaphor, a symbol: As Cedarbaum writes in the online catalog, “[N]ewspapers were the great agents of change, molders of opinion, and fomenters of political revolution for much of modern history.”

Of course, newspapers have also always been tied up with transience: Today’s news (or art review!) is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper.

And in newspaperland, transience has taken on a whole new meaning of late. You can’t look at those giant, romantic printing presses, or at the fleet of trucks parked out back waiting to deliver the papers all around New England every night, without also contemplating their eventual demise, and the triumph of the virtual.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at