Jasper Johns broke into the art world in 1958 as a painter. Within two years he had become a printmaker as well. The latter vocation is the focus of “Jasper Johns: Variations on a Theme,” a new show at the Phillips Collection.
A broad survey of Johns’ printmaking, the 101-piece exhibition was initiated by the Phillips and will not travel to other museums. It stretches from his first lithograph to work Johns, 82, completed just last year.
“We’ve never had a Jasper Johns exhibition,” says Phillips assistant curator Renee Maurer, who organized the show. “We wanted to bring all his themes together. We thought, ‘Why not do it on paper? And why not do it in a way where you can show him working from 1960 to 2011?’”
The paintings in the South Carolina-bred artist’s first solo show, in 1958 at New York’s Leo Castelli Gallery, were heavily layered in the manner of abstract expressionism. But Johns’ use of such ready-made motifs as targets and the American flag showed an affinity for the pop art of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, whose work drew on commercial art and used printing techniques.
Johns and his contemporaries were taken with “the idea of looking at an object and wondering how you can vary it,” Maurer says. “If it’s black-and-white, what will it look like in color? If it’s a lithograph, what will it look like in an etching?”
There are various stories about how Johns came to work with Universal Limited Art Editions, a New York-based fine-art-print publisher through which he created his first lithographs, many of which were riffs on earlier paintings. One is that ULAE’s founder, Tatyana Grosman, saw Johns’ first show and “thought there was something about Johns’ work that would really transfer very well to lithography,” Maurer says. Another is that fellow artist Larry Rivers advised Johns to go to ULAE because “you can make some money by selling some prints.”
“Variations on a Theme” traces Johns’ printmaking evolution by chronology, but also by motifs. These include primary colors and stenciled numbers and letters, as well as his trademark targets and flags. In his later work, the artist adds autobiographical images, abstract patterns and references to such artistic influences as French surrealist Marcel Duchamp.
The show explores the link between Johns’ prints and sculpture. 1982’s “Voice 2,” a riff on a 1971 painting of the same name, breaks the work’s title into three panels, with the letters in a curved, overlapping pattern. “He wants you to consider this three-panel piece as if you are looking around a cylindrical object,” Maurer explains. “He wants you to look beyond the paper.”
In the 1990s, the curator notes, Johns had a workshop built specifically for making etchings and lithography, adjacent to his painting studio in Connecticut. Moving between the two has enlivened the artist’s work in both mediums, Maurer suggests. But she just might prefer the prints.
She contrasts “Untitled,” a 2011 intaglio print, with the 2000 painting that preceded it. “The painting began as something very dark, layered and heavy,” she says. “But the print became light, transparent and ethereal.”
Lead and ‘Bread’
Most of the pieces in this show are on paper, but a few are made from stamped sheets of something more substantial: lead. Such works as 1969’s “Bread” (above) and “Light Bulb” were made at Gemini using an innovative technique the workshop developed with Johns’ guidance. While they incorporate three-dimensional objects, Maurer says, “they’re considered a printed medium, because it’s an embossed technique.” But these works-on-lead also show how Johns continually blurs artistic categories.The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW; through Sept. 9, $12; 202-387-2151. (Dupont Circle)