Hands in the Prints of Jasper Johns

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Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns has been using his own handprint as an element in paintings, drawings, and prints for close to 50 years. This exhibition presents many of the lithographs and intaglios that demonstrate not only the wide variety of effects he has achieved through this deceptively simple device, but his mastery of printmaking techniques.

The first time Johns used his hands as a component of a work was in 1962, in four Study for Skin drawings. These were made by the artist covering his face and hands in oil and imprinting them on paper. Since these drawings were studies for a ‘rolled-out’ sculpture of a head, this first manifestation of the artist’s hands can be seen as incidental. However, later that year handprints appeared as focal points in several important paintings, including Diver, Land’s End, and Periscope (Hart Crane), as well as in large drawings.

Revisiting established subject matter is a hallmark of Johns’s sensibility: I like to repeat an image in another medium to see the play between the two: the image and the medium.A year after the Skin drawings, the artist began to explore the imprint theme in lithography at Tatyana Grosman’s Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE), on Long Island (where he had made his first prints in 1960). The results were Hand – a ‘test’ of whether oil or soap would be the best substance to transfer the impression of Johns’s skin to a lithographic stone; Hatteras, and two stones that were later realized as Skin with O’Hara Poem and Pinion.

Since then, Johns has periodically returned to the motif in both paintings and prints. This has included ‘rephrasing’ the themes of the 1962 paintings Land’s End and Periscope (Hart Crane) in lithographs at Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles and intaglios at London’s Petersburg Press; and making several large triptych intaglios at ULAE after the 1984 painting, Untitled (Red, Yellow, Blue).

Of note among the many ‘Savarin’-themed lithographs and monotypes in which hands make an appearance is the large monotype with a background of handprints in secondary colors — reminiscent of prehistoric cave painting; and the Savarin lithograph of 1981 that references Edvard Munch’s famous image (also a lithograph) Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm, but with Johns’s ‘living’ arm in place of the skeletal one and a Savarin can replacing Munch’s likeness (Johns’s Savarins can be viewed as metaphorical self-portraits – the artist as his brushes – as well as still lifes).

An intriguing recent use of hand imagery can be found in Fragment of a Letter (2010), an intaglio diptych that contains the same excerpt of a letter from Vincent Van Gogh to his colleague Emile Bernard in each panel — but the words on the left-hand side have been rendered in sign language, in a multiplicity of miniature, gesturing hands, and Johns has ‘signed’ (in two senses) his full name in larger versions of the hand symbols in rectangles mirrored in the respective panels. There is a large handprint at the bottom of the right-hand panel, reflecting Van Gogh’s signoff to his friend with a ‘handshake’.

These elements are much more literal than Johns usually allows, but the ‘farewell’ handprint is still somewhat enigmatic, regardless of the presumed textual equivalent. The hands in the artist’s other prints project outright ambiguousness. They may be imagined as suggesting a greeting, or symbolizing peace or friendship, or indicating a warning or admonition, or signaling distress, or more than one of these at once; or something else entirely, including functioning as neutral embellishment. They do not elucidate the works they are a part of, but enhance the inherent mystery of the whole.

Tony Towle

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