Johns has long been concerned with the visual and conceptual act of decoding. His various manners of painting and drawing, for example, frequently result in a congested accumulation of marks or signs, while his materials include encaustic (a thick, quick-drying wax medium that allows for a visible layering of brushstrokes) as well as objects that have been mounted on the canvas in the manner of assemblage and collage. These elements make Johns' work optically and physically dense; paintings acquire what the artist referred to as an "object quality," and the experience they elicit from the observer is slow and searching, as if form and meaning are at once tangible and obscure. In Perilous Night, such qualities are applied with unprecedented power and complexity to a new and unexpectedly expressive iconography.
Perilous Night is composed as a diptych. The right half of the composition contains objects and images that are variously representational: three fragmented casts of a human arm, hanging from the top of the canvas by individual hooks; a painter's maulstick, which is attached to the right-hand edge; a handkerchief copied from Picasso's images of the Weeping Woman, "attached" to the canvas by an illusionary nail; the silkscreened musical score of "Perilous Night," a song composed by John Cage; painted trompe l'oeil wood grain (a depiction of Johns' own front door); a Johns crosshatch picture, painted to look like a collage element; and a traced detail from Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim altarpiece showing the fallen soldier from the Resurrection panel, which has been transformed into a dark, illegible (or abstract) pattern. Enlarged and rotated, the Grünewald detail also occupies the entire left side of Perilous Night. The two-sided composition is, then, laden with the artifacts of artmaking--the tracing, the copy, the replica, the three-dimensional facsimile, and an actual tool of the trade.
Together these elements represent independent visual systems coexisting in a limbo state of unresolved relationships. Darkness ("perilous night") prevails throughout the work as a medium in which meaning is suspended. Nonetheless, Perilous Night possesses an iconographical complexity that was new to Johns' work. It heralded the beginning of a phase in which symbolic images are posted across the surfaces of paintings and drawings, often looking like separate objects that have been taped, pasted, or pinned to the support. As a body of work, their shared subject is the artist's studio as a hermetic space in which images, instruments, and props are charged with unexpected meaning. Thematically, they are also joined by references to mortality and death. In Perilous Night, the hanging arms, like a butcher's display of body parts, are luridly clear; in contrast, the almost illegible Grünewald Resurrection detail (on both sides of the work) is shrouded in darkness rather than in an illusionistic, symbolic light. Indeed, the present work plainly traffics in the iconography of Crucifixion--helpless arms, wooden planks, nails, and the very phrase "perilous night"--as well as of redemption (the Resurrection). These elements are heightened by the diptych format, which allows Perilous Night to resemble an altarpiece.
(Text by Jeffrey Weiss, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)