By the early 1960s Jasper Johns had introduced a new subject matter of mundane, everyday objects into American art. In his first solo show in New York in 1958, he presented a formidable series of paintings of flags, targets, numbers and alphabets. Puzzling critics and viewers alike with their commonplace subject matter and impersonal style, these works signalled the return of figuration in American art which in the previous decade had been dominated by Abstract Expressionism. In 1960 Johns added to his repertoire of subjects the motif of the map of North America. This was to become one of his signature images which he reworked in a series of paintings between 1961–63 and in two lithographs, executed in 1965–6, Two maps land
Two maps II.
Johns regularly repeated and reworked his subjects, very often across a range of media, explaining ‘I like to repeat an image in another medium to observe the play between the two:
the image and the medium’. This approach brings into focus one of the central concerns of Johns’s practice, namely his interest in the interplay between the object, its representation and the languages of illusion. An artist who is widely read in psychology and philosophy, Johns’s particular interest in the work of Wittgenstein has informed his sustained investigations into the nexus between art, perception and language. His use of well-known symbols such as the flag, target or map – ‘things the mind already knows and things which are seen and not looked at’ – enables him to explore the operation of images as surrogates for the object world, and the interplay of perception and representation. The artist’s enthusiastic embrace of the lithographic medium from 1960 opened up new creative possibilities for his work. The need to draw the image in reverse onto the stone, to draw a separate stone for each colour as well as the medium’s capacity for the reworking and reuse of stones in different colours and permutations presented the artist with new ways of working. Lithography afforded Johns an entirely new range of options for further manipulating his imagery, enabling him to enact his dictum ‘Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.’
Two maps I is a key work by Johns that powerfully encapsulates his conceptual concerns and processes of working. The map of North America the artist adopted for this series of paintings and prints was based on the type used in school text-books. As such it is familiar to all Americans – an object that is known, yet not seen. Johns’s works operate by encouraging viewers to see this object anew. In Two maps I, by stripping away all state names, doubling the image and printing it in a ghostly white ink on black paper Johns opens up the map to new aesthetic possibilities. Other readings prompted by the work’s erasure of all of the state names include a reflection upon the functioning of memory and the use of labels and symbols as cornerstones of the cognitive process. This seminal print, generously donated to the National Gallery of Victoria by the Reverend Ian Brown, joins a small but fine group of Johns’s Lithographs. It is, now, the earliest print by Jasper Johns in the collection. Cathy Leahy, Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2005).