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September 16 - October 16, 2006 at Leslie Sacks Fine Arts, West Los Angeles

by Bill Lasarow

It comes almost as a surprise to think Jasper Johns was well into the third decade of his career before the revolution in digital technology had gotten fully underway.  The thought is due to more than, say, his fascination with numbers and letters, which at times he had a penchant for overlaying one on another according to the look of a digital clock.  And it transcends the gridded compartments to which he relegated plaster casts, names, or crisscross arrangements of lines.  No, it has more to do with his use of simple visual givens that are approached in a repetitive manner.  He reliably turns what should not only be obvious but quite dull into something that sets off fireworks.

In the digital world the sheer volume of ‘1s’ and ‘0s’ are liberated by the controlling mechanism of programming technology.  In Johns’ world it is the liberating hand of the artist that frees images from banality and toil.  It is too often pointed out that Johns’ art is free of emotional expression, but just because he sought a way around the expressionist theatrics that prevailed early in his career doesn’t mean that when we search for feeling in his work we draw a blank.  The opposite is true.  This selection of prints done in a variety of techniques from the late 1960s to the early ‘80s amount to a summary of his career over its first quarter century.  Knowing that the artist is visiting and revisiting images long since digested by an audience that had by then grown from a handful of Manhattan cohorts to an international following, one is entitled to some degree of skepticism that we are merely being exposed to received knowledge rather than illuminated discovery.  Like the assumption that he took the emotionalism out of expressionism, this would underestimate Johns.

By 2006 the distance of some history helps us see Johns’ special place in it, but tends to inhibit our ability to appreciate the artist’s work on its own terms.  Perhaps it is fair to assert that Johns is Johns precisely because his work does stand on its own merits even as it resonates historically.  An “Untitled” 1980 lithograph crams in the target and number iconography that links him to Pop art, the loose spontaneity of Abstract Expressionism from which he emerged, and the interplay of language with the visual that helped lead to later conceptual trends.

"Numbers: 0 Through 9," executed
in 1967-1981, brush and ink over
unique etching proof, 13 x 9 3/4".

"Target with Four Faces," 1979,
intaglio printed in colors,
edition of 88, 23 1/2 x 18 1/4".

"Figure 4," 1969, lithograph
on Arjomari paper, 38 x 31".

"Untitled," 1977, screenprint
in colors, 9 1/4 x 9 1/4".

What is winning about works such as “Target with Four Faces,” or “Flag,” or “Numbers:  0 Through 9,” or “Untitled #2  from After ‘Untitled 1975’” is that the presence of the artist is so convincing.  If the images are in some works engaging, but in other works flaccid, the artist’s lively attack of the surface more than makes up for it.  Images serve mainly as an excuse to make lines, marks, and to select colors, their density and their means of application.  “Figure 6” or “Figure 4” are hand done linear renderings of stencil-like numerals through which we view brushy, tri-color fields.  His painterly response, however, is not necessarily to the formal logic of the image; it is to the immediacy of the working space within the composition.  

Check out, for example, how the vertical green strokes of “Figure 4” follow the slope of the number to the left, while tipping over into a 45 degree diagonal along the stem of the number.  Then the blue lower portion has the feeling of a cascade of water that crashes at the base of the figure.  It’s quite delicious, then to slide over to “Numbers:  0 Through 9,” in which Johns could not resist, about 15 years after having made this etching of the ten overlaid digits, overpainting by hand with an inked up brush.  Instead of rote chaos, we get both sensuality and clarification.  How did he pull that off?  The theory here is:  this is exactly where Mr. Johns lives.