Carter Foster on Jasper Johns

A drawing like this one may seem limited on first viewing, as if the artist has provided himself with numerous constraints. A simple, rectilinear structure of two rows keeps things firmly in place. There is no color, just modulations of gray and black. The numbers are signs so familiar one might consider them boring. Space is not rendered in any deep, volumetric way. But with any luck, this drawing slows the viewer down, inviting us to count slowly across its surface and in that way to savor its lush material presence. It is a surface to be delicately appreciated—evidence of the artist’s attention and hand is abundant. Since the images of numbers are already familiar and perhaps not too needful of further thought, close looking at what the artist has done yields great varieties: of pressure, tone, layering and density of this beautiful medium of graphite and graphite wash. We are all familiar with the line a pencil makes—this medium is, unlike many with which artists work, one that most of us have used. We know the silvery line a graphite pencil can make, so it is perhaps surprising to see a variety of strokes and forms that are, though dry, liquid in their formal qualities. We see strokes that look painted on, grays rubbed gently into the white surface. Amid open loose strokes, tight edges remain crisp and defined, themselves helping to define the numbers we see. In short, within the simplest of visual fields and most familiar of signs, the artist’s complicated attentions make us delight in this very contrast.

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