Perilous Night, 1982 by Jasper Johns

Perilous Night is dark and dense. Obscure images, mysteriously juxtaposed, act almost as an armor, preventing the viewer from penetrating the painting's meaning.

The painting's structure, however, is clear. It is a diptych, made up of two halves. On the left is a single dark image. On the right are a number of disjointed but clearly defined images and objects. What do they signify and what is the relationship between the two sides?

Almost all of Johns' images incorporate art history, art-making, found images, and references to his earlier works and experiences. Scholars have probed these sources, speculating on their many possible meanings.

Fortunately, Johns revealed the source for this half of Perilous Night because even the most astute art historian would have been hard-pressed to discover it.

The image is derived from Matthias Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpiece, a powerful, expressive painting depicting scenes from the lives of Christ and Saint Anthony. Johns became engrossed with a detail from the painting, the figure of a soldier whose body twists dramatically after being struck down by the brilliant light emanating from the resurrected Christ.

Isenheim Altarpiece, by Matthias Grunewald
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Johns wondered if the figure was expressive in its very structure, beyond its role in the altarpiece. To explore this possibility, he traced it from a reproduction, turned it ninety degrees, reversed it, and painted his own version in shadowed tones with purple outlines. Its abstract presentation adds a perceptually unsettling quality to the image.

A handkerchief is "pinned" to the wall with a trompe l'oeil nail. What does it suggest? Johns adapted this motif from a Picasso etching of a weeping woman - an image of protest against the Spanish Civil War and its death toll. Without knowing its source, the handkerchief might appear neutral or even cartoonish. But in context, it suggests sadness and grief.

Plaster casts of three dismembered arms hang from hooks against the surface of the painting. The spots on the arms might allude to illness and death: they recall Grunewald's manner of depicting Christ's wounds in the Isenheim Altarpiece. Some critics have interpreted the spots as sores produced by AIDS. Johns said he found this connection logical, though it was not intentional.

Weeping Woman by Pablo Picasso
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The abstract painting beneath one of the arms is a "miniature" Jasper Johns. Its crosshatch motif refers to a series of works Johns made during the 1970s. Johns first saw the pattern on an oncoming car:

I only saw it for a second, but knew immediately that I was going to use it. It had all the qualities that interest me - literalness, repetitiveness, an obsessive quality, order with dumbness, and the possibility of complete lack of meaning.

The wooden stick attached to the canvas also appears in other works. Found objects like this make complex and layered references. As a tool for measuring or a maulstick used to steady a painter's hand, this stick could symbolize the way an artist works - figuratively and literally - in the act of creating.

The spots also visually recall the patterns Johns used in his abstract works of the 1970s.

The title, Perilous Night, has several connections. Johns took the name from a piano composition written by his friend, the avant-garde composer John Cage. "The Perilous Night" is considered to be one of Cage's most emotional works, about "the loneliness and terror that comes to one when love becomes unhappy." Cage took the title from ancient and medieval myths about a bed placed on a floor of polished jasper. Did Johns adapt the title because of the pun on his own name?

There are more references in the picture to a "perilous night." The Isenheim Altarpiece depicts the night - frightening and awe-inspiring - when Christ was resurrected. Those familiar with Johns' famous paintings of the American flag might also think of the "Star-Spangled Banner," which describes how the flag survived a perilous "fight."

Scholars have uncovered many references and allusions in Perilous Night. Bringing them to light is like detective work. But we still face the problem of interpretation. Are all of these references relevant? Do they add up to a coherent meaning? Can only those who are familiar with them understand the work?

Critics have suggested that many of Johns' paintings are about perception. In Perilous Night, we want to understand the dark image on the left side but cannot do so without referring to the right side. The painting functions like a model of how our brain uses both emotions and analytic intellect to "see." This theory could account for the diptych format and the different types of images on each side, but does the right side really illuminate the left?

Another interpretation is that the left side depicts a terrible but unfathomable event, the right its aftermath. The wounded arms and the handkerchief, suggesting mourning, hint at death. This might justify the dark mood of the painting, which recalls the theme of the Grunewald altarpiece. The role of the other elements on the right side - the paintings and the musical score - is less clear. Perhaps they reflect the way artists such as Johns and Cage have used systems of marks and signs that both direct and obscure meaning.

These interpretations offer insight but not a comprehension of the painting. "Decoding" is irresistible, but the parts do not add up to a whole. Meaning is accreted by elements - the cast, the score, the reference to the Isenheim Alterpiece - which themselves have long and complex histories. Yet, Johns argues that his intentions are irrelevant because meaning emerges between the painting and the individual looking at it.