Jasper Johns

Dancers on a Plane


Oil paint and acrylic paint on canvas and bronze frame
Support: 2000 x 1619 mm
frame: 2002 x 1620 x 58 mm
Purchased 1981

Display caption

The themes of this work appear to be art, dance, sex and religion. It was inspired by a Tantric painting of the god Shiva represented as Lord of the Dance and copulating with the goddess Sakti. Johns presents the dance abstractly in the 'dancing' forms on the canvas, but at the centre top and bottom of the frame are stylised images of a vulva and testicles. The work is dedicated to Johns's friend the celebrated dancer Merce Cunningham. His name and the title are written along the bottom of the picture but intermingled: The words are composed of alternate letters, read right to left, beginning with the fourth letter from the left edge and continuing inwards from the right edge.

Gallery label, September 2004

Catalogue entry

T03242 DANCERS ON A PLANE 1980–1

Inscribed ‘J Johns’ bottom right on frame
Oil and acrylic on canvas with painted bronze frame, 75 × 60 (190.5 × 152.4); size including frame, 78 1/8 × 63 5/8 (200 × 162)
Purchased from the artist through the Leo Castelli Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1981
Exh: Five Modern Paintings from the Tate Gallery, Arts Council tour to Nottingham, Barnsley, Hull and Bolton, January–July 1983 (5, repr.in colour)
Repr: The Tate Gallery: Illustrated Biennial Report 1980–82, 1983, p.55 in colour

Jasper Johns's ‘Dancers on a Plane’ is one of a pair of works of the same size made during the second half of 1980 (the frame for this one was completed in January 1981). Both works bear the same title; in T03242 the further inscription ‘Merce Cunningham’ indicates the person to whom the picture is dedicated. Johns insists that the work is for Cunningham and not about him. (Merce Cunningham is America's leading contemporary dance choreographer; he and Johns, as his artistic advisor, collaborated for many years). The full inscription reads DANCERS ON A PLANE MERCE CUNNINGHAM but the letters are disposed in a single line as follows:


'Merce Cunningham’ is written in alternate letters from left to right, beginning to the immediate right of the median line of the canvas and continuing from the left edge to the centre. ‘Dancers on a plane’ is reversed and with the letters back to front, beginning four letters from the left-hand edge and continuing from right to left. The colours are those used throughout the painting (‘Dancers on a plane’ being picked out in brighter, more positive colours) and the letters are disposed to provide, as far as the artist can remember, the greatest number of contiguous repetitions. These were discovered by writing down the variations in a number of notebook sketches for the work. Johns has said that the title refers to the picture plane and the concern that a painter has with the aesthetic of the surface, and with the limitations of a flat rectangular support. This is contrasted with the paradoxical nature of the aesthetic of dance movement in three-dimensional space in which relation to time is paramount. The reversal of the letters emphasises the ambiguous planar qualities of the image by encouraging the viewer to imagine that he can read the image from the other side.

The canvas is divided into eight approximately equal areas, four vertically at half and quarter divisions and once down the long central axis of the canvas. The right-hand half of the canvas is a mirror image of the left. The division into segments is derived from the surrealist technique of producing drawings called ‘exquisite corpses’. In this game a sheet of paper is divided and several artists collaborate to make an image; each works on a section and then folds the paper over to conceal his contribution. Johns's quarters are posited in a similar way. The cross-hatching technique was developed in the early 1970s and continued through ‘Scent’ and a group of paintings where the palette used to make the strokes and the titles are closely linked. Clear acknowledgement of the technique of the exquisite corpses and mirror images is found in a group of works entitled ‘Corpse and Mirror’. Towards the end of the 1970s Johns was introducing the themes of death and sexuality into the works.

In the first work of this pair Johns established and adhered to a set of rules as follows: at the first division colour and the direction of the line change; at the second, colour changes and the direction continues; at the third, direction changes but colour does not. The fourth link can be envisaged by imagining the joining of the top and bottom edges of the canvas, thus forming a cylinder where colour and direction are constant. In the Tate Gallery's painting Johns allowed himself to diverge from these rules and it appears that at the first division the lines change direction only, at the second colour only and at the third direction and not colour. The link between the top and bottom of the canvas is obscured by the inscription. The mirror image on the right is more freely worked and is painted with mixtures of the purer colours (both primary and their secondaries) found on the left.

The frame of the Tate's painting incorporates a sexual motif, a pair of testicles and the base of an erect penis penetrating the vulva. This is at the centre of the shorter sides and is split between the top and the bottom of the frame. Johns had attempted and failed to incorporate the device in the other painting of the pair; it appears here in the frame and in the subsequent ‘Tantric Detail’ series. The image is taken from Tantric sources using books that are widely available (such as the catalogue of the Arts Council of Great Britain's Tantra exhibition, 1971, pls.101 and 103). He has isolated this section of the image found often in depictions of sexual initiations. He made a number of paper templates to establish scale and size, before preparing a wax version of the frame for casting. The familiar Johnsian motif of knives, forks and spoons is also related, on this occasion, to Tantric sources; Johns talks of the multihandedness of the images of several gods (and in particular ‘The mystic form of Sannvara with seventy-four arms embracing his sakti with twelve arms’ from 17th century Nepal). Works such as these show the god holding a number of objects in what appears to be a vertical freize on either side of his body. Johns has translated this literally in his use of the everyday, portable objects. Similarly the dotted white line on the lower half of the central division of the canvas is related by him to jewelry of heads, bones and skulls worn by the gods and goddesses in these Tantric pictures. Johns is willing to draw our attention to particular sources and images, though he may sometimes remain unaware of the philosophical or religious significance of the elements or images that he uses. However the elements themselves, such as the cutlery and the skull, have been used by him for several years in the full knowledge of their uses in the Western tradition.

When asked about his incorporation and use of this material, Johns replied as follows:

'Seeing a thing can sometimes trigger the mind to make another thing. In some instances the new work may include, as a sort of subject matter, references to the thing that was seen. And, because works of painting tend to share many aspects, working itself may initiate memories of other works. Naming or pointing to these ghosts sometimes seems a way to stop their nagging.

'In “Dancers on a Plane” the frame brackets the painting with symbols of creation and destruction, principles which are central in the Tibetan works.’

This note is based on an interview with the artist on 4 April 1983.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984