Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on Janaury 29, 2007 with the permission of the San Diego Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the gallery brochure from which it is excerpted, please contact the San Diego Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Jasper Johns' Green Angel: The Making of A Print
by Betti-Sue Hertz
Of the many motifs explored by the American artist Jasper Johns (b. 1930), the Green Angel series has generated an unusually high volume of discussion and debate. There are more than forty works of art-drawings, watercolors, oil paintings, and prints-using this single motif, in a variety of permutations, all created between 1990 and 1998. In early 2006 Johns donated the etching Green Angel, from 1991, and its seventeen attendant proofs to the San Diego Museum of Art, specifically selecting it for the museum. This attractive work of art, with its complex puzzle-like image and elaborate production, yields many visual and intellectual pleasures, which unfold through a close reading (viewing) and diagnostic analysis (thinking) on the various embedded sources of meaning. Recently, SDMA purchased Green Angel 2 (1997), which provides an opportunity for comparison and contrast of the similarities and differences between the two. The palette of the latter is toned blue (rather than the muddled green of Green Angel) and is compositionally split into the dark left half and light right half. The most obvious difference is the additional segment at the bottom third of the print, with its mirroring of the (now) upper two-thirds, which draws attention to the malleability of images in the playful imagination of the artist.
With this set of proofs at our disposal-six monochromatic elements, six polychromatic elements, and five progressives, part of a complete set of twenty two trial proofs and one working proof-Green Angel lends itself to a thorough presentation of the phases of printmaking. Each of these proofs represents a laborious process of decision making and technical experimentation that Jasper Johns underwent with the assistance of a team of master printers (John Lund, Shi Ji-Hong, and Craig Zammiello) at Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) in West Islip, New York.
ULAE's founder, Tatyana Grosman, first invited Johns to create lithographs at the workshop in 1960, and he began working on etchings in 1967. Intaglio etching is a flexible medium, offering a rich array of techniques (sugar lift aquatint, spit-bite, and photogravure) for building an image with a variety of surface textures and coloration. It requires a thoughtful step-by-step process, and at the same time records spontaneous and accidental effects that may occur during the making of the print. In order to construct the image for Green Angel, Johns used six copper plates. There are three impressions for each of those plates within the exhibition. The monochromatic (black) elements represent the first stage in the process. It is here that the artist and the printers have adjusted the tonal scale, the quality of line, and the definition of shape. The polychromatic (color) elements, which in this case may include more than one color for each plate, separate the palette into discrete units. The progressive proofs show the successive buildup of the image. For example, the second progressive proof is the overlay of the second pass of the paper over the plate through the printing press, onto the first stage of the print, which has already been through a first pass on the first plate. This process continues until the final print is produced.
The central motif of Green Angel comprises two flat, interlocking organic forms: a horizontal shape in front of a vertical shape that extends above and below it. Both of these forms have been traced to a single source, which the artist has not revealed. Johns derives his forms from art historical sources, items from his home and studio, and elements from the landscape or cityscape. Generally, he is willing to reveal his sources, or art historians have been able to decipher them. Those in the Green Angel works include Woman in a Straw Hat with Blue Leaves (1936) by Pablo Picasso, and a drawing by an anonymous schizophrenic female child, reproduced in a 1952 Scientific American article by child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim.[i] Features copied from each of these works play secondary roles to the central motif and are integrated into the composition while retaining their association with their sources. The drawing by the schizophrenic child shows two misaligned eyes, a mouth, two breasts below, and a nose, all set within a hand-drawn border decorated with the child's smudgy fingerprints. In Johns' interpretation, the painting's facial elements formally resemble the female figure in Picasso's work, but in their lateral distribution on a rectangular field, they recall the child's drawing.[ii] The cross-hatchings seen throughout the prints are common elements in Johns' work, which first emerged in his prints in 1972 and originally appeared as "pseudo-abstract" markings in his own paintings from the 1960s and early 1970s.[iii] They are used here as pattern and to fill in or delineate the modules of interlocking shapes that dominate the compositional field. Johns uses symbolic elements to which he has a deep personal attachment and sustains a long involvement with his repertoire of forms, which he shepherds through a constant state of experimentation until an idea is seemingly exhausted, both as part of a work of art, and as an image that retains its emotional value.
When asked about the title Green Angel, Johns has directed his questioners to the central nativity panel of the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald (ca. 1512-16), which features a concert of angels.[iv] The green angel in that work, also known as the feather-covered or dark angel, is playing the viola da gamba and is part of a trio of musician angels. Although Johns does not claim this figure to be a source for the imagery in this series, he suggests that it may be something to consider when thinking about its title. Other aspects of the Isenheim Altarpiece have been mined for other works by the artist, in tracings as early as 1981, including a soldier who has fallen by the glory of Christ's resurrection, and a diseased, bloated man-demon who appears in St. Anthony's hallucinatory visions. A brightly patterned version of the soldier is a key motif of Mirror's Edge (1992), and the demonic figure appears floating in the background of The Bath (1988).
Jasper Johns focuses his attention on modes of seeing that have evolved in Western art history since medieval times, especially in the Renaissance and Modernist periods. By quoting from canonical works, he both continues these traditions into a contemporary language and relies on their details for the construction of his own compositions. He is interested in preexisting rather than invented images, but he does not merely replicate them. He often reverses, mirrors, turns, or modifies the source, which retains an allusion to its original identity to a certain degree, even as it is commandeered into a new function and transformed by its new pictorial context. Johns enjoys the ambiguity achieved by tracing something from another artist's painting, a method that is amply represented in the Green Angel series. It sets up an uncomfortable tension between seeing and knowing, depending to a certain extent on the viewer's familiarity (or not) with the source. His experimentation with composition and distortion, and with figuration and abstraction peppered with iconography, aligns him with Picasso. His fascination with the mechanics of seeing, and with the discrepancy between perceptual experience and things in the objective world, aligns him with Paul Cézanne. The Green Angel prints are extraordinary examples of art as a visual puzzle that needs to be unraveled, both visually and conceptually-a real viewing pleasure that only gets better the longer you stay with them and look.
About the author
Betti-Sue Hertz is Curator of Contemporary Art at the San Diego Museum of Art
Biography of Jasper Johns
Born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1930, Jasper Johns moved in 1949 to New York, where he met artist Robert Rauschenberg, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and composer John Cage. Emblematic images including flags, maps, targets, letters, and numbers figured prominently in his early work, exemplified in his famous painting Flag (195455). His first solo exhibition was held in 1958 at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. Johns bridges Modernist and postmodernist practices. His work, along with that of Rauschenberg and another contemporary, Cy Twombly, has been termed Neo-Dadaist, although he is often grouped with the Pop artists.
From the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, Johns explored a variety of mediums including assemblage and screen print. In the 1980s he incorporated trompe l'oeil and perceptual psychology into his painterly approach to objects from everyday life. He also began to include personalized images of childhood memories and seasonal symbols, as well as a variety of visual and linguistic references to well-known European and American paintings. From the 1990s through the present, Johns has continued to synthesize the many ideas and techniques that he has accumulated over the course of his artistic life. He currently lives in Connecticut and Saint Martin.
About the exhibition Jasper Johns' Green Angel: The Making of a Print
From January 13 through March 18, 2007 the San Diego Museum of Art is hosting the exhibition Jasper Johns' Green Angel: The Making of a Print.
This special focus display at the San Diego Museum of Art showcases a highly significant etching, Green Angel (1991), by the famed contemporary artist Jasper Johns, which the artist donated to the Museum in 2006. Featured along with the print is a complete set of 17 proofs that reveal the creative process surrounding the image, another, very recently acquired piece from the Green Angel series, Green Angel 2 (1997), and original etching plates for both prints.
Johns' Green Angel series is unique in that, unlike previous prints he has created, the artist has not revealed his source of inspiration for the more than 40 works that embody the Green Angel motif. Throughout the 1990s, the artist continued to produce works, paintings, drawings, and prints, that use the distinctive, purposefully unidentifiable form of Green Angel.
One of the most influential American artists of the last half-century, Johns is best known for taking commonplace objects and transforming them into art, as seen in his breakthrough paintings of targets, numbers, and flags. He soon turned to printmaking due to his interest in process and the medium's facilitation of experimentation.
The above gallery brochure essay was authored in connection with the exhibition.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Chris Zook, Senior Public Relations Officer at the San Diego Museum of Art for his help concerning permissions for reprinting the above essay.
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