Jasper Johns: the ‘Color Numeral’ series


Currently on display at the National Gallery of Australia is Jasper Johns’ luminous Color Numeral series. Johns was at the forefront of the Pop Art movement and challenged the art establishment with works that feature ubiquitous symbols of the everyday. In his paintings and prints the American flag, letters, numbers, targets, arms and legs are reframed as the subject matter of fine art. The Color Numeral series shows each figure from zero through to nine rendered in brilliant hues. The dramatic, shifting colour spectrum in combination with drawn and found elements – scrawls, squiggles, Mona Lisa’s face, and the artist’s own handprint – give the prints a palpable, tactile quality.

In the late 1960s, under the direction of Ken Tyler, the print workshop Gemini GEL pushed the limits of printmaking, embracing all available technologies. This experimental ethos allowed artists to print on a larger scale and with more freedom than ever before. Created between 1968 and 1969, the ten works in the Color Numeral series were printed from the same stones Johns had used for his earlier Black Numeral series. Maintaining the delicate image for a second print series provided a challenge for the Gemini printers: using  the ‘rub-up’ technique learned from the French master Marcel Durassier, Tyler managed to create a low-relief image from the flat drawings on the stones, thus preserving the surface and allowing for a longer print-run.

A subsequent problem faced by the Gemini workshop was the inking of the large plates in order to capture the rich, multicoloured finish Johns required. In the artist’s smaller numeral prints, the plate was inked with a regular-sized roller which had been run throught the desired colours on a flat palette – a process impossible to replicate on a much larger scale. To achieve the smooth colour gradation the Gemini GEL workshop spent six months researching and adapting inking techniques and using rollers that would cover the large stones smoothly and adequately with a single rotation. The end result was a roller so large it could not be inked by one person. Instead, a hand-fed ‘inking fountain’ had to be devised. This rather complex machine consisted of four rollers which agitated the inks to achieve a slight blending, after which the large roller would be lowered and coated, ready to ink the stone.

Johns said of his printmaking practice: “…it’s the techniques that interest me. My impulse to make prints has nothing to do with my thinking it’s a good way to express myself. It’s more a means to experiment in the technique. What interests me is the technical innovation possible for me in printmaking.” His fascination with the possibilities of printmaking and Gemini GEL’s commitment to innovation made for a successful working relationship, to which the lustrous Color Numerals are testament.

In February this year, Johns was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama: http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/02/15/artist-jasper-johns-receives-presidental-medal-of-freedom/. To read more about Johns and the Color Numeral series, and to see photographs of Johns at work in the Gemini GEL workshop, go to the Kenneth Tyler Printmaking Collection website: www.nga.gov.au/tyler/

Emilie Owens, March 2011


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