NARRATOR: Across the center of this painting, a string hangs freely between two fixed points. It makes a curve called a catenary, commonly associated with the arc of suspension bridges—and a concept Jasper Johns explored in more than sixty works of art.
Here, it suggests a bridge between the two sides of Johns’s composition. On the left are graphic symbols from a Chinese dragon costume that Johns wore as a child. On the right there’s a very different style of artistic representation: loosely painted colorful diamonds. The diamonds pay homage to the costume of Harlequin, a recurring subject for artists throughout history, most importantly Pablo Picasso. Thus, the string connects Johns and his own history with the larger history of art.
Throughout the Catenary series, Johns examined his own search for ways to mediate between the flat picture plane of the canvas and the fully dimensional world, represented here by the strip of wood and string.
This painting embodies a remark Jasper Johns made in 1989, “Painting can be a conversation with oneself, and, at the same time, it can be a conversation with other paintings.”