The artwork of American painter, printmaker, and sculptor, Jasper Johns, has been well profiled, so I will forego the usual discussion of his flags, targets, maps, and numbers. This is a personal story of my own that centers on Jasper Johns’ collection of artworks entitled The Seasons. These works include four life-size paintings, one for each season, plus smaller drawings and prints.

At the time of their creation (1985-1989), and to the surprise of many who knew him to keep his art and life separate, Johns included his own shadow silhouette. Initially traced by a friend, his darkly outlined and painterly shadow is the protagonist of these works.

©Jasper Johns' "The Seasons", Intaglio print, Universal Limited Art Editions,1989.
©1989 Jasper Johns “The Seasons”, Intaglio Print, Universal Limited Art Editions

First Impression

When I was a printmaking intern at Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) on Long Island, NY I spent a semester living at the company headquarters in West Islip. I stayed in an upstairs bedroom of a gingerbread-style house that included a lithography studio and office. The tiny room had a custom size bed (smaller than twin), a desk, a wood chair, and a bedside table. At the head of the bed was an original painting by Maurice Grosman, the husband of ULAE founder, Tatyana Grosman.

On the wall along the length of the bed hung a black-and-white intaglio print of “The Seasons” by Jasper Johns, editioned the previous year. Winding down from the day, I’d gaze at this piece every evening, studying the amalgam of objects, its future impact unknown to me.

Intern’s quarters at ULAE | Self-portrait in front of Jasper Johns’ “The Seasons” print, 1990.

A World of Perpetual Flux

The repetition of Jasper Johns’ shadow (in summer, fall, winter, and spring) marked the steady rhythm of a perpetual cycle. Within the confines of the print, he was the victim of a world in constant motion. But the most intriguing aspect about the shadow man was his stance.

He was peering at me, as if leaning into the doorway of my room. His arms were at his sides, one hand touching his thigh, the other twisting behind him as if guiding the door. Faceless, he was far from expressionless. His body’s position showed no threat or desire – but my mind named him resigned, lonely…and curious.

Jasper Johns "The Seasons" paintings installed at MoMA, 1996. Black and white photo.
Jasper Johns “The Seasons” paintings installed at MoMA, 1996. Photo: Erik Landsberg.

He asks, “Are you there? Are you here?

Perhaps this is a projection of how I felt as an intern in such a place. With visits from Kiki Smith, Robert Rauschenberg, and even Jasper Johns himself, it was natural to feel disbelief. And it was my nature to wonder at my own existence. Even today, when I look in the mirror, these same questions arise. In the years following my internship, human physiology and anatomy became the base interest that drove my art.

But when I inevitably delved into the microscopic world of tissues and cells, of atoms and nanoparticles, everything in my orderly worldview disintegrated. Jasper Johns’ shadow often leaned into my doorway asking questions I couldn’t answer.

Are you real?

When I turned fifty, I was sewing abstract, mosaic-like patterns influenced by forest fires and uncharacteristic temperature shifts in Colorado. The dramatic weather (The Seasons Series) and the dismay of pollinator demise (The Screaming Dreams of Flowers) were dominating my artistic mind.

But these works did not expose my interior life. Deeper in, I was longing for an untarnished sense of nature and wrestling with my own role in environmental collapse.

Jan R Carson's "Summer Observer" with detail image and photo of the artist with traced shadow.
©Jan R Carson “Summer Observer” | Tracing of my shadow in the studio.

I don’t know why Jasper Johns decided to place his own silhouette into his paintings, but it now seemed the sole course of action for me. The work required my own human shape so that I could reflexively inhabit the situation. So I asked a friend to trace my body’s shadow.

I cut along the lines and there she was: a smaller, tighter, pensive daughter to Johns’ painterly form. When I cut my shadow out from silk, it was better than a mirror because she was sheer and pliable. Most thrilling of all: she was vulnerable to destruction.

The Observer Series

Using Jasper Johns’ The Seasons as a guide, I reimagined his works through my present-day lens. Because I was expressing a sense of helplessness and self-judgement in these scenes – like an immobile bystander at a cataclysm – I titled these four works The Observer Series.

I took to cutting holes within my shadow’s form, stitching over and slicing into her outline. Now I understood my true feelings of anguish. In winter, I placed her in snowfall, just as Johns had done. For spring, I sliced apart and reassembled her legs in angled lines as if to fill the frame with water to the middle of her thighs. She was forced to withstand the cracking of desiccation during summer, and I sliced her entire body into two halves for fall, forcing her to walk behind her own back.

Jan R Carson, "Observer Series", Stitched Silk and LED Light, 2019.
Jan R Carson, “Observer Series”, Stitched Silk and LED Light, 2019.

I Dare You.

My relationship with Johns’ shadow man has not ended. Once presented with the intimacy of my human reflection, I have become enthralled with its ability to speak to wider concepts. My darkly lit shadow can risk being torn apart and suffer things I dare not even dream. She can withstand what I cannot. She is a canvas for my most glorious ideals, darkest fears, and deepest regrets.

I have a poster print of Jasper Johns’ Summer on my wall and his tilted figure dares me yet.

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Jasper Johns’ Shadow Man Haunts Me

4 thoughts on “Jasper Johns’ Shadow Man Haunts Me

  • August 1, 2023 at 1:37 PM

    Wonderfully written

  • August 7, 2023 at 5:18 PM

    It’s so interesting to me to read about your continued inspiration by Johns’ artwork. I don’t have a specific work of art that has followed me (or lead me) through the years of my art making. This is a lovely post, Jan.

    • August 7, 2023 at 7:23 PM

      I’ve never considered myself a die-hard fan of Jasper Johns, but there is definitely something to be said for spending time with an individual artwork. I lived with this print for five months during a time of growth and change. That leaves a mark. I think the figure shape was burned into my subconscious, which is why it returns.

      Thanks, Anne, I’m glad to know you enjoyed this post.

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