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The Transformations of Jasper Johns

The art of Jasper Johns shows a lifelong fascination with the processes of transformation. His chosen images are, famously, such things as the American flag, the map of the United States, targets, numbers, letters, parts of the body, flagstones he saw depicted on a wall in Harlem. The motifs are significant to him. But just as significant are the ways in which, partly through different techniques, the motifs can subtly change in character. Technique, and his use of it, is as much his subject as his motifs.

Johns once said: "The painting of a flag is always about a flag, but it is no more about a flag than it is about a brushstroke, or about a color or about the physicality of the paint."

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This goes some way toward explaining Johns's long interest in printmaking. It has offered him opportunities to investigate a great variety of techniques: lithography, silkscreen, photography, etching. Each is used to transform images generally lifted from his paintings.

Occasionally, a print has prompted a painting, but on the whole, printmaking has been a secondary activity. This does not mean that he considers his prints inferior to his paintings. Prints are, or can be, a way of reproducing an image. But this has not been Johns's principal aim.

For him, the easily repetitive nature of prints offers potential for transformations. One motif can, for example, be rendered in a whole gamut of different colors - from, as it were, A to Z or one to 10.

It is no coincidence that among Johns's earliest prints are ones whose motifs are individual numbers. He had already made paintings of numbers. It must have seemed inevitable that numbers be used for prints, which by custom are produced in small editions, each numbered and signed by the artist.

Another aspect of printmaking - and this is traditionally the case with etching - is the way a printing plate can be developed through successive states. More untraditionally, Johns has kept in his own collection the preparatory proofs of other sorts of prints he has made. An exhibition titled "Jasper Johns: Process and Printmaking," organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, opened Jan. 25 at the Dallas Museum of Art, where it is on display through March 29. It presents his prints together with their proofs, offering an extraordinary insight into his thinking.

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