Catenary (Jacob's Ladder), 1999
Encaustic on canvas and wood with objects
38 x 57.25 x 5.25 inches
Collection of the artist
Since 1997, Jasper Johns has been exploring the graphic possibilities of the catenary. Defined as "the curve formed by a flexible cord of uniform density...that hangs freely from two fixed points," the catenary is often exemplified by suspension bridges.
Relationships—which involve connection and difference, absence and presence—are the theme of this painting. Johns gives us literal and metaphorical examples. A length of household string—the catenary-links the two edges of this canvas, and also divides it into upper and lower registers. The subtitle, Jacob's Ladder, refers to the biblical connection between heaven and earth, which is suggested by hinged pine slats at the painting's edges. The work mixes two-dimensional abstract imagery with three-dimensional objects to create meaning beyond the aesthetic. Close inspection reveals many kinds of relationships, such as the impression of an unknown object in the wax surface, and a string of letters that weave together the painting's title and the artist's name.