The Role of the Copy

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Irving Penn, Jasper Johns, 2006. ® The Irving Penn Foundation

We’re pleased to present a series of excerpts from Jane Ursula Harris’  forthcoming book, After: The Role of the Copy in Modern and Contemporary Art. Harris’ survey assembles key examples of the copy from the onset of modernism to the present, and explores the copy’s relationship to the western canon. 

On Jasper Johns, John Cage, and Matthias Grünewald

Jasper Johns launched his career in the mid-1950s with paintings of targets, letters, numbers, and flags. The works embraced the representational and quotidian, reacted to the cabbalistic tendencies of late Abstract Expressionism, and are widely regarded as precursors to Pop and Minimal art.

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Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954-55, encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric mounted on plywood, three panels; Dimensions: 42 ¼ x 60

Over time Johns developed an increasingly complex iconography seemingly at odds with an emphasis on the concrete, revealing a paradoxical desire to explore the point at which visual logic—and meaning—fell apart. Through a scramble of illusionistic, abstract, and allegorical forms of representation, the line between the legible and the illegible was deliberately blurred. What remained consistent was Johns’ ongoing interest in the contingency of perception, and style—or surface—as subject.

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Jasper Johns, Decoy, 1971, lithograph with die cut, 41" x 29"

Johns persistently refused to explain or categorize his work. He emphasized only process and the object itself. “There may or may not be an idea,” he once said. “And the meaning may just be that the painting exists.” 

For some, the artist’s lifelong refusal to define his work extends its bid for indeterminacy; for others, the refusal was a call to crack the code: to find in his imagery and symbolism evidence of the personal.

Perilous Night, 1982, is a perfect example, having been read across a host of allusions to the historical and biographical. Based on Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, 1515, Perilous Night is a dramatic rendering of scenes from the lives of Christ and Saint Anthony. The mixed media diptych owes its title to a 1944 composition for prepared piano written by friend and colleague, John Cage (1912–1992).

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Japer Johns, Perilous Night, 1982, encaustic and collage on canvas, 5'7" x 8’ x 6"

Cage’s work was a pivotal piece in the composer’s aesthetic and personal life. He wrote it at the height of WWII as his marriage fell apart, and he began a relationship with the choreographer Merce Cunningham. A suite of six movements for prepared piano, Perilous Night is considered one of Cage’s most impassioned and autobiographical works. Its notable, however, that few listeners at the time were able to apprehend this emotion due to the work’s atonal nature. This  troubled the composer, and led him to question the relation between expression and intention. Johns too was preoccupied by this question - and perhaps by similar emotions - when he chose to reference Cage’s composition in The Perilous Night. While he never spoke of these correspondences, its clear that rather than lament his work’s lack of transparency, he devises it. 

Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512-1516 (second position)

A longtime admirer of Grünewald, Johns did speak of his choice to work with the Renaissance master’s iconic, and deeply expressive work, if only in formal terms: “I am interested in the ways in which forms can shift their meanings. I had marveled at the Grünewald painting when I saw it in Colmar; and later, I was given a portfolio containing large-sized details from the work. Looking at these, I became interested in the linear divisions, the way the forms were articulated, and I began to make tracings of the configurations. It was a little like my work with the flag—the work one does with a given structure alters its character.”  

Art historian Jill Johnston was the first to reveal hidden sources in Johns’ work. She found the artist’s appropriation of the altarpiece’s Resurrection panel, a scene in which a soldier, emotionally overcome as he witnesses the Resurrection of Christ, lies in a twisted state of awe and terror, a fellow soldier by his side.

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Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (detail of soldier), 1512-1516, oil on panel 

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Jasper Johns, traced figures before rotation, and reversal

Not surprisingly, in Johns’ enlarged, and reversed red outline of the scene—fragmented and turned on its side, the reference becomes inscrutable. Johnston decoded it only after seeing photographs of Johns tracing an image of the altarpiece. The abstract outline floats phantom-like over a dark encaustic ground that comprises the left half of Perilous Night’s diptych. The same pattern is repeated on the right, positioned below three cast forearms. The forearms hang from the top like amputated appendages, the tops of each gesturally dripping red, yellow and blue, respectively, all loosely painted in a sickly blue pattern.

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Jasper Johns, Perilous Night (detail of arm and sheet music), 1982

It is significant that Grünewald’s complex structure was constructed for a monastic order who treated victims of St. Anthony’s fire, also known as gangrenous ergotism (a skin disease considered at the time to be a plague). One of these victims, seen in the Temptations of St. Anthony panel, bears the same sickly blue, a symptom of the disease. That figure appears in Johns’ Untitled 1984, and like the abstracted figural scene adopted from the Resurrection panel, reappears as a motif in the artist’s works throughout the 1980s.

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Matthias Grünewald, detail of right inner wing of the Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512-1516, Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons

In Jasper Johns: Privileged Information, Johnston interprets these motifs—the heroic soldier and the plague victim—as two-halves of the artist’s psyche, aspects of identity she relates to his difficult childhood and professional life as a famous artist. Its a thorny speculation that Johns nearly disavows in his statement about the strictly structural import of the Isenheim imagery.  Yet in a 1984 Vanity Fair interview, conducted the same year the plague victim enters his work, he surreptitiously concedes: “In my early work, I tried to hide my personality, my psychological state, my emotions… but eventually it seemed like a losing battle. Finally one must simply drop the reserve.” 

Such a concession takes on new meaning when one considers that the Isenheim altarpiece was conceived as a redemption tableau, which unlike most altarpieces that open only once, had three openings. Covered by two sets of folding wings, it encloses in its final altarpiece three carved wood statues of St. Sebastian, St. Anthony Abbot, and St. Paul the Hermit, which Johns’ cast gangrenous arms may allude to.

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Isenheim Altarpiece (third view)

Two of the latter reach down to “hold” a Johns’ crosshatch picture—painted to look like a collage element, replete with trompe l’oeil nails—and a silkscreen of Cage’s score; iconography clearly intimate in origin, as is the inclusion of a maul-stick from his studio.

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Jasper Johns. Jasper Johns Perilous Night (detail), 1982

As the Art Institute says about the connection between the Isenheim scene and the Cage score: “The overcome soldier witnessing the Resurrection of Christ and a piece of music marking a key transition in a composer’s career both point to ‘perilous nights’ that can change the course of a human life.”

Johns’ engagement with the complicated structure of the altarpiece may be the crucial link to its emotional iconography. Indeed, his dense imagery and mysterious juxtapositions “act almost as an armor, preventing the viewer from penetrating the painting’s meaning”  in any singular or coherent way.

Issues of opticality, or the way images change and lose meaning according to context and vantage, are also evident in his work’s emphasis on replication and abstraction. They reflect the artist’s concerns with the semiotics of representation. In the context of Perilous Night, however, with its allusions to loneliness, terror, and disease, these contingencies in perception may also conjure a faith in art’s ability to heal, imparting a sense of hope, and a desire to transcend suffering. 

Jane U. Harris is a Brooklyn-based writer who has contributed to publications from Art in America, Bookforum, and The Paris Review, to The Believer, the Village Voice, and Time Out New York. She has also contributed essays to various catalogues including Participant Inc.’s M Lamar (forthcoming—2016); Hatje Cantz’s Examples to Follow: Expeditions in Aesthetics and Sustainability (2010); Phaidon’s Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing (2005), Universe-Rizzoli’s Curve: The Female Nude Now (2004), and Twin Palms’ Anthony Goicolea (2003). Ms. Harris is a member of the art history faculty at School of Visual Arts.