A monotype is a unique print in which the artist draws on a hard plate, usually metal, before laying a sheet of paper on top and running it through a press, transferring the image to the paper. Typically printed from a single application of ink, monotypes have an immediacy more akin to drawing than printmaking. Because of the medium’s unpredictability, monotypes are experimental by nature, which may explain their special appeal for Johns.
In the late 1970s, Johns began using monotype as a means of reworking his lithographs. The exhibition’s earliest works depict a Savarin coffee can filled with paintbrushes, the subject of his 1960 sculpture Painted Bronze. As Johns said in a 1979 interview, “I like to repeat an image in another medium to observe the play between the two: the image and the medium.”
After the Savarin monotypes, Johns turned to the crosshatch. Used for centuries to create tonal effects in engravings and other prints, the crosshatch first appeared in Johns’s work in an untitled 1972 painting. He spent a decade exploring the motif further in painting, drawing, and a range of printmaking techniques before embarking on a group of monumental crosshatch monotypes, two of which are included here. Over eight feet wide, each sheet was too large for a single plate, so Johns drew on several Plexiglas plates and printed them in sections, passing the paper through the press multiple times. The result is an interlocking pattern that varies throughout the group.
Other works in the exhibition incorporate familiar subjects and motifs, including three Catenary monotypes from 2001 and a Numbersmonotype from 2013. Among the exhibition’s most recent works are four 2015 monotypes based on a photograph taken by Larry Burrows during the Vietnam War. The source image depicts a Marine in despair after a failed mission, his posture echoing the photograph of Lucian Freud on which Johns’s based his recent Regrets series, as well as the figure in Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.
In 2017, Matthew Marks Gallery will publish a catalogue raisonné of Jasper Johns monotypes. Written by Jennifer L. Roberts, professor of art history at Harvard, and Susan Dackerman, Getty Scholar at the Getty Research Institute, the book will reproduce all 137 works Johns made in this medium between 1954 and 2015.