The series of images from Jasper Johns’ “Regrets” show at MoMA derive from a photograph of Lucian Freud taken by John Deakin around 1964. The photograph was commissioned by Francis Bacon for his Three Studies of Lucian Freud—the triptych that made such big news last year when it sold at auction for $142.4 million to an anonymous buyer. In the photograph, Freud is seated on a bed with a metal headboard and a diamond-patterned quilt over the mattress. A couple of newspapers lie on the ground at his feet and he holds his head in his right hand, turned away from the viewer while his body faces forward in three-quarter view.
Though this isn’t the exact pose Freud holds in any of the three Bacon “studies,” his posture is similarly stooped, and he wears the same white button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. (Bacon puts him in slacks, whereas in the photograph he wears corduroy pants, the pattern of which Johns picks up and repeats in the paintings, drawings and prints.) The bed’s metal headboard also appears in the Bacon triptych, only doubled, and behind a skeletal proscenium arch, within which Freud sits on a wooden chair. Bacon’s photograph is torn, crumpled, folded and paint splattered, and it’s missing a large piece of the lower left corner.
According to MoMA curators, Johns first saw the photograph in an auction catalogue, mounted against a black background so that the missing piece figured dramatically as negative space. Johns started making pencil sketches of the photograph, then he tried reversing the image, as is common practice for Johns, whose longstanding engagement with printmaking has fostered an interest in mirroring and reversal as a principle of composition. In one image, Johns mapped a pencil sketch of the image over a reversed rendition in watercolor, creating a hazy field of semi-abstract shapes with a tangle of criss-crossed and reversed arms and legs at the center of the composition.
Elsewhere, he mirrors the image across a landscape-format support of paper, canvas, copperplate or plastic. In at least one version, Johns plays with the juxtaposition of two distinct mediums—in this case, colored pencil versus ink and watercolor—which he has done before, as in Untitled, 1972 where a “hatch mark” design in acrylic is repeated next to a similar design in encaustic. But in most of the works, Johns keeps the medium uniform, experimenting with other kinds of variation, as with color, texture and tone.
Along one wall, four large-format ink drawings on plastic have a delicate, mosaic-like quality. The last one in the series looks like a stained glass window with its thin, dark outlines and abundance of light. It also reminds me, appropriately, of a silver gelatin print. Where the image has been mirrored across the support (just left of center), a death’s head appears in the fold, as it does in almost all of the works in this collection. Johns has always been a good recycler of his imagery, and the death’s head is no exception here, having appeared in works of his dating back to the 1960s (Fred Orton calls our attention to the skull in Johns’ In Memory of My Feelings—Frank O’Hara from 1961, though in this painting it’s completely painted over with grey and detectable only by x-ray imaging. It appears again, however, in Arrive/Depart, 1963-4, Untitled (Skull), 1973, Tantric Detail, 1980 and elsewhere).
In this series, the death’s head seems to relate most immediately to Lucian Freud, whose death in 2011 is still a recent memory. I suspect, too, that one of the reasons Johns may have been drawn to the photo of Freud is because of the quilt on the bed, which reminded me of Munch’s late self-portrait and meditation on mortality, Self-Portrait Between the Clock and the Bed, 1940-42, which Johns explored in a 1982-3 painting and a series of lithographs that isolated the pattern of the bedspread. Death figures pretty large as a subject of the works in this exhibition, whose title “Regrets” comes from a rubber stamp Johns made five years ago, MoMA curators inform, as a time-saving device “in order to swiftly decline the stream of requests and invitations that he frequently receives.” “Regrets,” then, is about being mindful of time; it’s about realizing one doesn’t have it in abundance, and it’s a motif that appears as a stamp or stencil, with Johns’ signature appended, in the upper-left corner of a majority of the works in the exhibit.
Overall, “Regrets” presents the familiar range of mediums, styles, and imagery we’re used to seeing from Johns. The works are dour and comic by turns, and they’re marked by the confident ease we’ve also come to expect from him. But the collection holds a few small surprises, too, like the watercolor Untitled, 2013 in which Johns introduces an unusual colorful eruption in the midst of an otherwise grey composition (the painting Regrets, 2013 is done in a similar style, though the colorful mosaic is set against a blue-grey composition); or the way the line in some of the aquatints, such as Regrets, 2014 and Regrets, State 5, 2013, grows incredibly abstract and electric, looking quite hieroglyphic in the latter; or finally, the way the metal slats of the headboard become defigured and refigured as a small rectangular frame which sometimes cuts into Freud’s left shoulder—alluding, it would seem, to the dormer window-shaped proscenium in Bacon’s triptych.
Unlike Bacon’s studies of Lucian Freud, Johns is careful not to erase the photograph as a mediated step between himself and his subject. His subject is not Freud so much as it is a picture of Freud. Like most of Johns’ previous work, he demonstrates here his tendency to engage in quotation and to create pictures of things that are already representations (one thinks of course of the Flag paintings, and of the numbers 0 through 9, a new series of which is included in the current exhibition). The melancholy subject matter of “Regrets,” which is tinged by the death of Freud and, to be frank, the old age of Johns, almost seduces the viewer into expecting a new forthrightness from the artist. But if we thought Johns was going to play it straight, we’d be disappointed.