Intaglio uses metal plates into which lines have been incised; it includes engraving, drypoint, etching, mezzotint, and aquatint. The ink is pressed into the lines with a dabber and the remaining ink is removed. The paper is dampened, placed over the plate, and passed through a press, where it receives ink from the lines, printing the image in reverse. The pressure from the press must be strong enough to force the damp paper into the lines on the plate, lifting the ink onto the paper. Intaglio printmaking emerged as an art form in the fifteenth century in works by artists such as Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). While many artists continued to experiment with intaglio, in the twentieth century, publishers Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) and Gemini G.E.L. fostered new approaches to the medium, which contributed to a printmaking renaissance in the United States.
Lithography is based on the chemical process that grease and water repel each other. A greasy medium is used to draw on a prepared lithographic printing surface, such as limestone. The surface is dampened with water, which settles in the unmarked areas and is rejected by the greasy medium. The surface is then rolled over with printing
ink, which adheres to the drawn marks. The ink is transferred to a sheet of paper by running the paper and the printing surface through a press. With this process, designs rest on the surface and are printed in reverse. Lithography was developed in the 18th century by Aloys Senefelder.
Silkscreen or screenprinting has its roots in wall decoration, ceramics, and fabrics produced by ancient cultures. In the 1850’s, the Japanese developed stencils held together by silk; the first patent for the process was attained in Michigan in 1887. Harder-wearing polyester meshes, ink technology, and stencil fabrication continued to evolve. The medium exploded in the fine art world in the 1960’s. With a squeegee, printing ink is spread over and forced through a screen. Ink is transferred to the paper on the other side. The final image is printed in its original orientation. A design may be applied to the screen in various ways. One method is to cut a paper stencil and attach it to the underside of the screen. Another is to paint out areas of the screen with a liquid that sets and blocks the holes in the mesh.
Jasper Johns has been a central figure in modern and contemporary art since the 1950s. Born in Augusta, Georgia, and raised in South Carolina, Johns wanted to be an artist at an early age. After attending classes at Parsons School of Design and serving in the army during the Korean War, Johns moved permanently to New York in 1953. There, he worked as an artist and belonged to an intimate circle of friends that included artist Robert Rauschenberg, composer John Cage, and dancer Merce Cunningham.
Johns’s exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1958 was a major turning point in his career; his depictions of everyday subjects—“things the mind already knows”—pulled away from the grandeur of Abstract Expressionism and paved the way for Pop Art and Minimalism. The Museum of Modern Art purchased three pieces from the show, a feat which opened many new opportunities for Johns. For over 50 years, Johns has challenged the possibilities of printmaking, painting, and sculpture, laying the groundwork for a wide range of experimental artists. Some of the iconic motifs that Johns has interpreted throughout his career include: flags, targets, numbers, ale cans, maps of the U.S., the crosshatch pattern, and, more recently, the catenary curve and gestures from American Sign Language.
His works have been exhibited in major museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Centre Pompidou, Paris; and the Kunstmuseum Basel. He represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1988 and was awarded the Grand Prix. He was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2011. Johns currently lives and works in Sharon, Connecticut, New York, and the Caribbean island of Saint Martin.
Jasper Johns’s creative impulses and collaborations with distinguished print workshops have produced over 360 editions, acclaimed as some of the most pioneering artworks of the last century. Printmaking has been integral to the American artist’s career for more than five decades. His interest in making variations of a single motif found a natural outlet in the medium, which allows for the reworking of ideas and records the stages that lead to a final image. While lithography has been his primary technique, Johns has also used intaglio, silkscreen, and lead relief to interpret subjects drawn from popular culture, his earlier work, and the history of art.
Jasper Johns: Variations on a Theme celebrates the artist’s visionary response to printmaking. Johns uses the medium to revisit and vary his subjects, transferring, reversing, repeating, and layering imagery in new and exciting combinations. The exhibition opens with early prints from 1960 like Target, Flag III, and 0 through 9, when Johns first experimented with lithography at publisher Universal Limited Art Editions in Long Island, New York. It unfolds with variations of these subjects to reveal the artist’s evolving interests through the decades. Figure 1 (1969) shows his exploration of color and printmaking techniques in collaboration with publisher Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles, California. The series Fragments–According to What (1971) excavates details from his 1964 painting, According to What. In the 1970s, an abstract aesthetic emerges with a crosshatch motif in works like Savarin (1977). In the 1980s, Johns began incorporating autobiographical references from his home and studio as well as traced fragments of other artist’s work, as seen in the remarkable intaglios The Seasons (1987). The grand etching Untitled (Black with Primaries) (1991), created with copper plates he had used 10 years earlier, demonstrates Johns’s inclination to use the materials of printmaking to interpret imagery in new ways. Johns’s latest prints, Fragments of a Letter (2010) and Shrinky Dinks 1–4 (2011), combine stenciled text and hand gestures from American Sign Language. This exhibition’s rich array of well-known works and ambitious new experiments traces the journey of Johns’s innovative prints from 1960 to 2011.
The exhibition is organized by The Phillips Collection in collaboration with the John and Maxine Belger Foundation.