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Sex, death and religion in Jasper Johns’s ‘Dancers on a Plane’

Published 1 December 2017

A tribute to the artist’s lifelong choreographer friend, this painting is full of symbols and allusions that aren’t immediately clear. Here, art historian Simon Wilson takes a close look at the work’s testicles, cutlery and fancy footwork.

  • From the Winter 2017 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Getting to know an artist and their work is a process that might be characterised as a kind of dance. In the case of Jasper Johns that is peculiarly appropriate since central to his career has been his long artistic involvement with the dancer and radically innovative choreographer Merce Cunningham, and his eponymous Dance Company. Indeed, the RA’s current survey of Johns’s work includes a key work, acknowledged as a turning point in Johns’s development, titled Dancers on a Plane. It is in the Tate collection and was acquired the year it was completed, 1981.

  • Jasper Johns Hon RA, Dancers on a Plane

    Jasper Johns Hon RA, Dancers on a Plane, 1980-1.

    © Jasper Johns / VAGA, New York / DACS, London 2017. Photo: © Tate, 2017.

  • My own dance with Johns began in London in 1964 when I saw the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition that ran from the 2nd to the 31st of December of that year. This was a ten-year retrospective, starting with the works of 1954-55 that made Johns famous, almost overnight. These were paintings of the American flag, executed in the rare and exotic medium of encaustic – pigment mixed with hot wax. Johns applied this in thick textures over a ground of old newspaper stuck to the canvas. The slight translucency of the encaustic where it is thinner allows glimpses of this newspaper, but nothing can be read. The image of the flag ran right to the edges of the canvas, so that while clearly a painting of a flag the work was also actually a flag, albeit a rather stiff one. I was 22, at the beginning of my involvement with art, and I was completely baffled by these things.

    It was only later that I became sufficiently attuned to painting as a medium to recognise fully the richness and complexity of facture alone of the encaustic works. And only later did I learn enough art history to be able to place Johns’s startlingly deadpan use of the American flag in the context of an issue that lies at the heart of what we call modernism – the relationship of art to reality, another kind of dance. In the 20th century in particular, the development of abstract art set up an extraordinarily fraught but also extraordinarily fruitful tension between abstraction and representation.

    In Johns’ case this tension was rendered the more acute by the total dominance in American art at that time of Abstract Expressionism. In the flag paintings Johns set up an almost mocking two-step with his abstract elders. For them any kind of recognisable image of reality was banned. But here was this upstart not only painting pictures of a real thing but one that was fraught with historical and cultural content! On another level however, the US flag is totally banal as an image, totally unremarkable. So Johns’ paintings of it can also be seen as abstract – just an arrangement of stripes and star shapes. He emphasised this by painting them in a range of colours, including one famous one in white. Johns was not the only artist of his time to explore this relationship between art and the real in new ways, but he has done so, again in a kind of dance, with exceptional originality and with an intellectual rigour of conception combined with often luscious sensuousness in the deployment of paint and colour.

  • Jasper Johns, Flag

    Jasper Johns, Flag, 1958.

    Encaustic on canvas. 104.4 x 153.7 cm. Private collection © Jasper Johns / VAGA, New York / DACS, London 2017. Photo: Jamie Stukenberg © The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, 2017.

  • Which brings us neatly back to Dancers on a Plane, sensuous indeed in its colour scheme of mauves shading through mauvish greys to blacks, and shot through with and animated by flashes of brilliant orange and yellow. This colour is carried by fluent crosshatched brushstrokes that set up a visual dance on the surface of the painting, on what is technically called the picture plane. One meaning of the title.

    Looking at the painting with attention the viewer will become aware that it has a central vertical division and that there is an underlying symmetry in the pattern of the two sides. Running up the lower third of the division is a line of white dots. Towards the upper end of this line the marks clustering close to it can be discerned as forming a shape a bit like an angular inverted pear. The pattern of the marks that can be seen to emerge from the overall patterning around the central divide might suggest an irregularly segmented symmetrical form as perhaps of a many legged insect, rising to a head at the top immediately below the frame.

    This frame was made by the artist himself and then cast in bronze and painted. The sides, rather disconcertingly, have a border of very real-looking tableware, a spoon, a knife and a fork, in a different sequence on each side. In the centre of the lower and upper edges are respectively an oval relief form and a form like a flattened W with a vertical rectangular form within it.

    The title is incorporated into the painting in stencilled lettering along the lower edge, with the addition, however, of the name Merce Cunningham, to whom the painting is dedicated. This inscription, however, is not easy to read. The words “dancers on a plane” are in colour and appear in reverse and reading from right to left, starting four letters in on the left side and then carrying on from the second letter in on the right. But these letters are interspersed with the letters of Cunningham’s name, the right way round and in black, and reading from left to right. The sequence is slightly mind-bending and seems to have two purposes. In a complex and playful way, both concealing and revealing the words, yet again in a little dance, it integrates the lettering into the formal structure of the painting – the inscription is simultaneously word and image. The apparently arbitrary start of the sequence ensured that the letter A would appear in the centre with the dotted line emerging from its point.

    Having got this far, I suspect the viewer may begin to think that there might be more to this painting than actually meets the eye. There is. In interviews Johns has revealed the following. The formation that emerges along the centre line is the remnants of, an abstraction from, a Tibetan Tantric painting of the multi-armed Buddhist deity Samvara copulating with his divine consort, whose legs are wrapped around his waist. Below her buttocks his large testicles appear. Both the male and female deitys’ hands hold multiple ritual implements, which include several tridents. Johns seems to allude to these forms in the modern cutlery around the frame, whose realism abruptly connects this very abstract painting to the contemporary everyday world.

  • , Mystical Form of Samvara with Seventy-Four Arms Embracing His Sakti with Twelve Arms, Nepal

    Mystical Form of Samvara with Seventy-Four Arms Embracing His Sakti with Twelve Arms, Nepal, 17th century.

  • The oval form at the centre of the bottom edge of the frame and the W shape at the top represent in stylised form the testicles of the god and the buttocks of the consort with the penetrating phallus. But the letter A above the testicles also takes on a phallic connotation. This phallic imagery is much more clearly apparent in a number of other works of this time, including a ravishing charcoal and graphite drawing, Tantric Detail (1980), which is in the RA show. In it there is also a clearly depicted skull, which may be related to the necklace of skulls that appears below the god’s testicles in the Tantric painting. The essence of this skull remains in Dancers on a Plane as the inverted pear-shaped cluster of marks in the lower section. The American scholars Rosenthal and Fine have suggested that the white dots connecting the oval testicle form on the frame to the skull represent semen, which in Tantric practice ideally is retained, to rise from the genitals to the head.

    It seems that at this time Johns had come, as artists tend to do, to brood on sex, death and religion, those touchstones of human existence. In particular he had become intrigued by Tantra, that eastern religious tradition in which sexual energy plays a significant role. Triggered by the Tantric painting, and set into a context of dance, he made a series of works of which Dancers on a Plane is the last and most developed. In it, interrelated themes and imagery are finally assimilated into an abstract, complex, richly layered and richly expressive visual whole.

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