Jasper Johns (b. 1930)


Jasper Johns (b. 1930)
signed and dated 'J Johns '78' (lower right)
acrylic on plastic laid down on plastic
image: 15¾ x 10¾ in. (40 x 27.3 cm.)
sheet: 21¼ x 16 1/8 in. (54 x 41 cm.)
Painted in 1978.
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1981
New York, Leo Castelli Gallery and Los Angeles, Margo Leavin Gallery, Jasper Johns: Drawings 1970-1980, January-March 1981.


Executed on man-made "drafting vellum" in 1978, Untitled is considered one of Jasper Johns' first paintings on plastic. This was a technique to which he would return in later works in the Cicada series, which he explored in a range of media between the year this work was created and 1984, including the 1979 painting, Cicada in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

In the Cicada works, Johns explored interactions of primary and secondary colors, juxtaposed with each other through the vehicle of his iconic cross-hatching. This was an element that came to the fore in his work during the mid-1970s. Just as the idea for the Flag had come from an endemic image that appeared in a dream and his flagstone pattern from a building he had glimpsed in New York, so too the cross-hatch was a type of readymade pictorial template prised from the visual world around Johns. "I was driving on Long Island when a car came toward me painted in this way," the artist recalled. "I only saw it for a second, but knew immediately that I was going to use it. It had all the qualities that interest me - literalness, repetitiveness, an obsessive quality, order with dumbness, and the possibility of complete lack of meaning" (Johns, quoted in S. Kent, "Jasper Johns: Strokes of Genius," pp. 258-59, K. Varnedoe (ed.), Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, New York, 1996, p. 259).

In Untitled, the cross-hatch has been used to create a surface that is articulated by a heaving pattern which, through the specific color contrasts, has an almost 3-D effect, reinforced by the white border zone. In each top section of this tripartite work, Johns has placed strips of acrylic in a primary color alongside the secondary color which does not contain that primary. Hence, the blue is with orange, which is made up from red and yellow; the red is with green, made from yellow and blue, and the yellow with purple, the result of the combination of blue and red. In other works from the series, these contrasts were explored using different compositions, usually as a single "panel" rather than this triple-banded form. In the Houston work, for instance, the cross-hatching is in a single color with the white background showing through; at the edges, the hatching has been rendered using secondary colors, while at the centre the primary colors dominate.

The color contrasts in Untitled create a visible sense of vitality despite the deliberate constraints that Johns has imposed upon himself with the Cicada formula. This effect is accentuated by the juxtaposition of each of the strips and by the fact that the strips of color often burst from the imposed edges of the three fields at the centre of the work. It is in part because of the striking visual effect of this picture and its sister-works that the series gained its name, which invokes notions of metamorphosis and transformation, as well as the extra dimension of the dense sound they create: "The Cicada title has to do with the image of something bursting through its skin, which is what they do. You have all those shells where the back splits and they've emerged. And basically that kind of splitting form is what I tried to suggest" (Johns, quoted in K. Varnedoe, Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, 1996, p. 302).