In response to:
Johns from the February 2, 1989 issue
To the Editors:
There are no “allusions” to the work of Mathias Grunewald in Jasper Johns’s paintings, as William Gass put it in his “review” of Johns’s retrospective in Philadelphia [NYR, February 2]. Johns has made direct copies from Grunewald, by tracing two figures, cast from projector onto canvas. Nor are these figures “all but invisible,” as Mr. Gass comments; they are literally invisible. Johns has expertly camouflaged the figures by various uses of paint and line, as well as mirroring them or turning them on their sides or upside down. It’s impossible to identify or see these precisely copied figures without benefit of being shown the Grunewald details which Johns has traced alongside Johns’s camouflaged renderings. Some textual guide is also required to help bring the original and the Johns into alignment. The reader or initiate must spend a little time studying the text and the Grunewald and the Johns in order to see them. Once identified, or seen, the two figures in all their amazing disguises are very visible indeed, and one can see them everywhere in Johns’s work of the ‘80s.
It’s interesting to me that Mr. Gass quoted from the article I wrote on Johns (October ‘87, Art in America) in which the possibility of identifying the figures was provided; that he acknowledged the Grunewald reference (and my pursuit of the figures), without having seen the figures himself. It’s understandable, then, however regrettable, that Mr. Gass virtually ignored all the paintings by Johns (nearly half of the 33 works shown in Philadelphia) that feature the two figures. Ironically, one of the Grunewald figures (from the “Temptation of St. Anthony” panel) appears prominently in the rather large reproduction of Johns’s “Untitled ‘84” accompanying Mr. Gass’s article—an irony echoed in the photograph of Johns actually tracing this figure, reproduced on the first page of the article.
It should amuse and perhaps please Johns that his disguises continue to work, and that even a critic who says he has read an article in which these disguises are uncovered is still unable to see them. In work of such great personal and iconographic significance, revered (as all his work is) for its surfaces and “mystery,” the artist remains a winner in his privacy game, possibly to his own loss, undeniably to ours.
New York City