“Variations on a Theme,” the subtitle of the exhibition, may refer to a macroscopic sense of Johns’s career, which has resolutely focused on what increasingly appears to be a small, private breviary of signs and images, or to the process of printing, in which every reproduction is also a small variation on the original. Johns’s tendency to rework the material thing that produces the print, the stone or plate, emphasized the range of variation possible and the tension between the original and the image it produces.
Variation is best not understood in the old musical sense, the elaborations a composer makes on some basic melody or bass line. Rather, it is a process of continual evolution, leaving in doubt whether one can confidently identify any prototypical theme.
In the later 1960s, Johns started working in the Los Angeles print shop Gemini G.E.L., where he eventually began producing reliefs in lead. Using thin sheets of the malleable but heavy metal and a powerful hydraulic embossing press, Johns created “prints” that look more like printing plates. They are dark and feel archaic, their detail reminiscent of ancient carving rather than modern printing. A 1969 plate, with an embossed and painted piece of paper depicting a slice of bread on the surface has a powerful sense of the platonic ideal to it, a piece of white bread that looks almost edible floating in a dreamlike sea of dark metal. Again, the pop-art sensibility is on the surface, but something more powerful is happening as well. Platonic forms, a powerfully influential philosophical idea about how timeless, perfect ideals of things are antecedent to the messy world of actual things, are sometimes analogized to the process of printing, as if the forms are originals from which a secondary world of prints are made.
Johns’s platonic form of a piece of bread — a very American piece of white bread — is in fact a “print,” a reproduction, just as the philosophical distinction between ideal forms and things inevitably breaks down in a messy logical confusion. And if there’s a comment on the world in his choice of a tasteless, ubiquitous and nutritionally nugatory slice of bread, it may have something to do with the way that definitions limit us. Because it is everywhere, easily reproduced in almost identical form, the American slice of white bread is the definition of bread for many people. The thing that is reproduced becomes the ideal, and no other form is adequate.
The exhibition is organized roughly chronologically, and as Johns ages, his language becomes more enigmatic and less purely conceptual. If there is a mysterious theme hidden underneath all these variations, perhaps it is purely personal. One has the occasional sense that Johns’s entire life may be an exceptionally rigorous form of self-discipline, a game of clues and codes that someone may someday unravel into a biographical narrative.
But he tells us not to look. “Avoid the idea of a puzzle which should be solved,” Johns once said of a work he made in 1983. That seems to suggest the viewer should remain passive in front of the work, succumb to the idea that there is no puzzle there. But Johns’s words are ambiguous (and the missing comma in the text makes them more so): Perhaps there is indeed a puzzle, just not one that can be solved.
Taken that way, the “theme and variations” in Johns’s career becomes a strangely heroic and Quixotic quest, an endless pursuit of a theme that may not actually exist.
In a 2010 print, “Fragment of a Letter,” the artist uses images of a hand making sign language almost as background material. It seems to encapsulate Johns’s ambition, not just to have fun with codes and signs by translating them from one medium to another, but to make a picture of communication.
It isn’t possible. The artist can depict many things, but depicting how we see isn’t among them. Yet that often seems to be Johns’s goal, a life-long series of feints at an elusive image of visual codes actually at work, doing their job, communicating ideas about the world. It is Sisyphean work, and after studying decades of it, it’s worth stepping back into the exhibition at the beginning point in 1960.
The target that is an eye will haunt you.
Variations on a Theme
is on view Saturday to Sept. 9 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. 202-387-2151.