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On Printing, Originality, and Quoting in "Ventriloquist" (1983) by Jasper Johns

Ela Krieger

Pages 27 - 40



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In this article, I analyze the material and technical means employed in a Jasper Johns painting in relation to its imagery and semantics. I suggest viewing the multiple quotations, the references to the printing procedures, and the ventriloquist motif as Johns’s unique way of dealing with the concept of artistic originality. The vast majority of scholarship on Johns’s "Ventriloquist" associates the references in the painting with the work’s title—in both cases (of the references and ventriloquism), it appears that the "voice" comes from other sources. The emphasis there is on the act of cultural borrowing, a consideration of the painting as a Barthesian text, a “tissue of quotations.” Accordingly, Johns’s reference to Barnett Newman in 1983 was read in light of the “Death of the Author,” similarly to the way his work was interpreted three decades earlier, as a revolt of a Neo-Dadaist against a central figure in Abstract Expressionism. Ventriloquism, however, not only problematizes authorship and originality, it also brings to mind the act of mediating the physical aspects and material means that are involved in expressing ideas through a medium. In this article, I show how Johns dealt with originality not as an abstract entity but as an element embodied in the medium of printing. By focusing on Johns’s reference to Newman, I propose an additional perspective to the encounter between two artists in which “originality” finds itself in the material aspects of the artistic medium.

Key Words: U.S.-American art; originality; printing; materiality; quotation; ventriloquism

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