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Artists Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns

American Painter and Printmaker

Movement: Neo-Dada

Born: May 15, 1930 - Augusta, Georgia

"I think a painting should include more experience than simply intended statement."


The reverberations of the work of Jasper Johns affected nearly every artistic movement from the 1950s through the present day. Johns engaged with modernist precedents like the original Dada movement and Abstract Expressionism in order to actively refute the hierarchy of modernism that reduced the aesthetic experience to the distinct material qualities of the medium and removed it from the viewer's life. He did so by initiating a dialogue with the viewer and their cultural context through his artistic exploration of how people see the things around them. By representing common objects and images in the realm of fine art, Johns broke down the boundaries traditionally separating fine art and everyday life. He effectively laid the foundation for the Pop Art movement's aesthetic embrace of commodity culture with his playfully subversive appropriation of common signs and products. Johns' exploration of semiotics and perception also set the stage for both the Conceptual art movement and the Postmodern movement of the following decades, while his multimedia collaborations with John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Merce Cunningham ushered in the dominance of the performance art movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

Key Ideas

Rather than direct representation or abstraction, Johns made signs, like flags and targets, the main images in his works. The "things the mind already knows" were his ideal subject because of the host of varied meanings each carried with it. This fostered the perceptual ambiguity and semiotic play at the heart of his works.
Johns quoted the gesturally evocative Abstract Expressionist brushstroke, using the idea of the artist's mark as merely another symbol that enhanced the multiplicity of meanings and interpretations in his paintings.
Like his Dada predecessor and mentor, Marcel Duchamp, Johns artistically initiated a dialogue in each artwork that was meant to be resolved within the mind of the viewer. His expansion of this ideal throughout his oeuvre ushered the open-ended aesthetic typically associated with movements at the start of Postmodernism, like Conceptual art.
Through his use of shreds of newspaper, found objects, and even mass-produced goods like Ballantine Ale and Savarin Coffee cans, Johns erased the division between fine art and mass culture. This shifted modern art away from abstraction towards the consumer landscape of mid-twentieth century America.

Most Important Art

Flag (1954-55)

This, Johns' first major work, broke from the Abstract Expressionist precedent of non-objective painting with his representation of a recognizable everyday object - the American flag. Johns built the flag from a dynamic surface made up of shreds of newspaper dipped in encaustic - with snippets of text still visible through the wax - rather than oil paint applied to the canvas with a brush. As the molten, pigmented wax cooled, it fixed the scraps of newspaper in visually distinct marks that evoked the gestural brushwork of the Abstract Expressionists of the previous decade. The frozen encaustic embodied Johns' interest in semiotics by quoting the "brushstroke" of the action painters as a symbol for artistic expression, rather than a direct mode of expression, as part of his career-long investigation into "how we see and why we see the way we do."

The symbol of the American flag, to this day, carries a host of connotations and meanings that shift from individual to individual, making it the ideal subject for Johns' initial foray into visually exploring the "things the mind already knows." He intentionally blurred the lines between high art and everyday life with his choice of seemingly mundane subject matter. Johns painted Flag in the context of the McCarthy witch-hunts in Cold War America. Then and now, some viewers will read national pride or freedom in the image, while others only see imperialism or oppression. Johns was one of the first artists to present viewers with the dichotomies embedded in the American flag. Johns referred to his paintings as "facts" and did not provide predetermined interpretations of his work; when critics asked Johns if the work was a painted flag, or a flag painting, he said it was both. As with other Neo-Dada works, the meaning of the artwork is determined by the viewer, not the artist.

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Target with Four Faces (1955)

In this work, Johns effectively merged painting and sculpture while wittily engaging the viewer with "things which are seen and not looked at." As in Flag, Johns relied upon newspaper and fabric dipped in encaustic to build the intricately textured surface of the painting. However, he also made plaster casts of only the lower half of a female model's face over four successive months, and fixed these out of order in a hinged, wooden box that he attached to the top of the canvas. By incorporating the sculptural elements in the same space as the painting, Johns emphasized the "objecthood" of the painting, as Rauschenberg did in his "combine paintings" of the late 1950s. This merging of mediums reinforced the three-dimensional object-ness of the paintings and was the Neo-Dada response to the recent progression of abstraction away from representation to an ever more reduced imagery that merely reiterated the surface of the canvas.

Beyond the material surface of the work, the concentric circles of the target imply the acts of seeing and taking aim. However, Johns excluded the model's eyes from the plaster faces, and thus thwarted any exchange of gazes between the viewer and the faces in the work. This forced the viewer to examine the interactions between the painted target and the plaster faces. Viewed through the lens of the Cold War era, the seemingly benign images can imply the targeting of the anonymous masses by global political powers as well as by corporate advertising and the mass media. Conversely, contemporary viewers might read the anonymity of the Internet in the work. Every individual's interpretation is shaped by his or her own history and knowledge. As part of his continued exploration of how people see the world around them, Johns intentionally chose the vague symbols of the target and a nondescript human face to solicit multiple, varied readings of this elusive work that straddles two historically distinct mediums.

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False Start (1959)

For this piece, Johns eschewed the nonverbal symbols of his earlier works, instead relying upon the building blocks of language to draw viewers into a dialogue with the painting. The change of subject matter was occasioned by Johns' desire to move beyond his earlier targets and flags. As he noted, "The flags and targets have colors positioned in a predetermined way. I wanted to find a way to apply color so that the color would be determined by some other method." By focusing on colors and the words that represent them, Johns abstracted each, removing the traditional associations that accompanied them. Rather than hand-paint each letter, Johns used a store-bought stencil - a readymade method by which he could create an image without revealing the trace of the artist's hand. He stenciled the words that denote colors on top and underneath the various layers of paint as he worked. Johns transformed the words into objects by rendering most in colors unrelated to those which they verbally represented - "RED" appears painted in bright orange in the center of the canvas. Johns reveled in the dissonance between the words and the colors, shifting their function from designation to a mere assembly of symbols, ripe for reconsideration.

Although he shifted media from encaustic to oil, Johns maintained his dialogue with the Abstract Expressionists through a technique he called "brushmarking." Influenced by John Cage's interest in the role of chance, Johns used the gestural technique of applying small sections of paint to the canvas purely according to arbitrary arm movements rather than any preconceived placement for each individual brushstroke. His use of brushmarking resulted in explosive bursts of color, as if in an erupting fireworks display, that highlight or obscure the uncannily hued words scattered across the canvas. The tension between the dynamic colors and the words dispersed among them creates the space for viewers to engage with what they see on a semiotic level. By incorporating language into his visual repertoire, Johns expanded his dialogue with viewers to encompass the function of visual and verbal symbols. His exploration of language stands as a clear precursor to Conceptual art's examination of words and their meanings in the late 1960s.

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Painted Bronze (ale cans) (1960)

In this bronze sculpture, Johns intentionally blurs the line between the actual object and its artistic recreation, wherein the handcrafted appearance of the Ballantine Ale cans is only apparent after close inspection. He fashioned the sculpture in response to Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning's boast about art dealer Leo Castelli, "you could give [him] two beer cans and he could sell them." Johns accepted the challenge implicit in De Kooning's statement, casting in bronze two cans of his beer of choice, Ballantine Ale, which Leo Castelli promptly sold. The original beer cans were a deep brass-colored metal, which was ideal for casting in bronze to achieve an effective trompe l'oeil effect. However, in contrast to the authentic appearance of the cast cans, he allowed his brushstrokes to remain visible in the painted labels, creating an imperfection visible only upon careful observation.

Johns cast each can and the base separately and imprinted his thumb in the base as the autographic mark of the artist's hand, ensuring that the work is handmade. Johns cast one can with an open top and painted the Ballantine insignia and the word Florida on its top. The other can is unopened, unmarked, and solidly impenetrable. Some critics read the contrast between the cans as a metaphor for the relationship between Johns and Rauschenberg - an illustration of the differences and the growing space between them. In this reading, the open can serves as a signifier for the gregarious and popular Rauschenberg who began spending much of his time in his Florida studio in 1959, while the closed one stands for Johns and his quiet, impenetrable public facade. Other critics read a narrative of everyday life into the difference between the two cans - that everyone lives their lives between the after, or what has already happened embodied by the opened can, and the before, or what has yet to transpire in the closed can. Despite some clues, like the thumbprint, Johns left the final interpretation of the sculpture open to the viewer's discretion. His foray into representing mass-produced goods within the realm of fine art paved the way for Pop art.

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Periscope (Hart Crane) (1962)

Here Johns combined several of the motifs and symbols from his earlier paintings in a constrained palette of gray, black, and white. The upper right-hand corner of the painting contains half of a device circle. In 1959, Johns adopted a technique in which he attached a wooden slat, usually a ruler or canvas stretcher, to the painting to create a compass-drawn circle. The device dragged through the paint formed a target that echoed his earlier target paintings. However, here he interrupted the concentric circles of the target with an imprint of his outstretched hand. The handprint suggests the replacement of the artist's hand with a mechanical device.

The artist's hand is a recurring form in a series of works, including Periscope (Hart Crane), that Johns executed from 1962 through 1963 and that focus on Hart Crane, whose poetry resonated deeply with Johns. Crane famously committed suicide at 32 during a return trip from the tropics, by diving off a ship into the Gulf of Mexico. Just before he disappeared below the sea, he reached his hand above the waves. The handprint can be read as a visual reference to Crane's suicide. Executed after the bitter end of his relationship with Rauschenberg, it signals Johns' emotional distress in the wake of their breakup. The periscope in the title also refers to Crane's poem Cape Hatteras (1929), which had dual importance for Johns. He not only moved into a studio near Cape Hatteras in 1961, but the epic poem also traces the changes in one's memory as time passes. In the aftermath of their breakup, Johns likely identified with the theme of change and loss, which he illustrated through the grasping hand, the mirrored words, and the splashy brushwork that echoed waves crashing about a drowning man. In direct contrast to the coolly automated aesthetic of Pop art that his work helped bring about, Johns imbued his works of the early 1960s with complicated messages of loss and emotional hardship, which reflected his vulnerable position after the end of his and Rauschenberg's powerful and influential relationship.

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According to What (1964)

Johns created this expansive, seven by 16 foot painting by joining several canvases together, as well as by adding various found objects to the painted panels. He included techniques that appeared in earlier works, like "brushmarking," the stenciled names of colors, and cast body parts. He also expanded his visual repertoire through his inclusion of elements like silkscreened newspaper pages that discussed the Kremlin in the center of the painting. While Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg used silkscreening as a convenient method of reproducing photographs in paintings without evidence of the artist's hand, Johns fervently painted into and around the screened headlines, reinforcing the idea of the intertwining of artist and device explored in Periscope (Hart Crane) (1962). On the far left side, as an ode to his mentor, he attached a small canvas with the silhouette of Marcel Duchamp so only the back with the stretchers, date, title, and Johns' signature were visible. Above this small canvas, he also attached a vertical cross-section of a chair, with a mold of a leg seated in it, turned upside down. Johns added the found objects to create a painting that "allows things to change" as the lights and viewers shift around the work. This shift in focus illustrated Johns' belief that we all experience the world through multiple fragments viewed in shifting contexts from varying perspectives.

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Savarin (1977)

Johns originally designed this big lithograph as a poster for the Whitney Museum's 1997 retrospective exhibition of his work. The motif of the Savarin coffee can appeared in several of Johns' earlier works, both as a life-size, painted bronze sculpture and as a found object added to a painting. The Savarin image became a signifier for Johns and his oeuvre, which made it an ideal subject for this print. The background of the lithograph portrays brightly colored crosshatched lines, a style which he quoted from one of his most recent paintings. By visually placing the Savarin can directly in front of one of his current paintings, Johns succinctly referenced his entire career through the dialogue between the two items within the print, apropos for the self-promotion related to a career retrospective. Johns later revisited this same lithograph in a series of single edition mono-prints, in which he painted over the original print, adding a renewed sense of the artist's presence and extending the reference to his oeuvre into the 1980s.

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Catenary (Jacob's Ladder) (1999)

Description: A "catenary" is the curve formed by a rope or chain hanging freely from two fixed points, and is the theme that governs Johns' recent Bridge series of prints, drawings, and paintings (1997). In this particular work, the sensuousness of paint dominates the canvas. Johns applied the monochromatic gray paint in long, loose brushstrokes over a multicolored underpainting, which reveals itself in the gaps between the strokes. He extended the paint beyond the canvas onto the wooden slats on either side of the painting, leaning towards the viewer and integrating the found objects into the painted field. On the left side, Johns attached the pine slat with a hinge at the bottom so it projects out into the viewer's space. Similarly, on the right side, he attached two slats, connected to each other and the canvas with hinges. He secured both sides with a hook and eye, so that they do not fall against the wall, but dangle in the space in front of the painting, evoking the wood and ribbon tumbling block folk toy of the subtitle.

The sensuously applied paint is interrupted by the white arc of a thin piece of rope suspended between the wooden pieces from a metal eye attached to each slat. This simple curvilinear form traverses the steely background and visually evokes bridges and the connections they provide. While the rope is most often read as referring to manmade objects, like suspension bridges, others interpret it as suggesting natural forms like valleys and the curves of the human body. Some critics have viewed the rope's response to gravity as an allusion to the progression of one's lifetime, or the connections and limitations that accompany advancing age. Although Johns divulged that the title reminded him to dream, referring to the biblical patriarch's dream in which Jacob envisioned a ladder that connected heaven to earth, no singular interpretation is wholly correct. As with all of Johns' works, the viewer determines the meaning of the artwork, and the simply evocative, curvilinear form of the rope provides a myriad of interpretations.

At the bottom of the canvas, in the same gray as the background, the artist stenciled ''Catenary 1999 Jasper Johns Jacob's Ladder'' in a cryptic system in which only every third letter is read - a nod to the semiotic play of his earlier works and an effective mode of continuing his exploration of how people see the world around them. Although Johns eschews the images and symbols of his earlier works for a more abstract style, allegorical references persist that extend the minimal forms into the cultural world around us.

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Born in 1930 in Augusta, Georgia, Jasper Johns grew up in rural South Carolina and lived with his paternal grandparents after his parents divorced when he was only a toddler. The paintings of his deceased grandmother, hung in his grandfather's house where he lived until the age of nine, provided his only exposure to art in his childhood. Johns began drawing at a very young age, with a vague intention of wanting to become an artist, but only pursued an official art education in college. He described his childhood desire to become an artist, stating, "I really didn't know what that meant. I think I thought it meant that I would be in a situation different than the one that I was in." Johns moved in with his Aunt Gladys for a few years in his adolescence during which she taught him, and two other students, in a one-room schoolhouse. Eventually Johns reunited with his re-married mother, and graduated as the valedictorian of his class at his high school in Sumter, South Carolina.

Jasper Johns Biography Continues

Early Training

Jasper Johns Biography

After high school, Johns spent three semesters at the University of South Carolina, starting in 1947. Urged by his teachers to study in New York, he moved north and spent one semester at the Parsons School of Design in 1948. However, Parsons was not the ideal fit for Johns, and he left the school, rendering him eligible for the draft. In 1951, he was drafted into the army and spent two years in service during the Korean War at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and in Sendai, Japan. Upon returning to New York after an honorable discharge from the army in 1953, Johns met Robert Rauschenberg, who ushered him into the art scene there. The two artists shared an intense relationship, both romantic and artistic, from 1954 to 1961. Johns noted that he "learned what an artist was from watching [Rauschenberg]." The two artists eventually lived together, had neighboring studio spaces, and formed "the main audience for each other's work." Through their constant contact, they deeply influenced each other's artwork, exchanging ideas and techniques that broke from Abstract Expressionism. Rauschenberg introduced Johns to composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham, as well as to the work of European Dadaist Marcel Duchamp. In 1958, Johns and Rauschenberg traveled to see the collection of Duchamp's work at the Philadelphia Museum, where the elder Dada artist's readymades had a profound impact on both young artists. In 1959, Duchamp himself visited Johns' studio, forming a direct connection between the European avant-garde and the newest generation of American modernists. Through these introductions, Johns' artistic practice expanded as he incorporated the methods of each into his own work.

Mature Period

Although he had only exhibited his painting Green Target (1955) in a group show at the Jewish Museum in 1957, Johns received his first solo exhibition in 1958, after Rauschenberg introduced him to influential gallery owner Leo Castelli. The solo show featured Johns' groundbreaking painting Flag (1955), as well as other previously unseen works from the 1950s. The idea for Flag came to Johns one night in 1955, when he dreamt about painting a large American flag. He brought the dream to life the following day, and eventually he completed several paintings of variations on the theme, all of which were included in the Castelli Gallery show. The paintings all dealt with semiotic images, or symbols and signs, in a simple and straightforward manner and stood in strict opposition to the abstractions of earlier avant-gardes. The landmark solo exhibition received monumentally positive critical attention and catapulted Johns into the public eye. Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, bought three paintings, which was essentially unheard of for a young, unknown artist.

As the Pop art movement grew around him, Johns left behind the colorful paintings filled with familiar gestures and images and turned to a darker palette. Some critics attribute the shift away from color and toward the grays, blacks, and whites that dominate many of his canvases from the early 1960s to the rocky end of his relationship with Rauschenberg. Although they did not move out of their New York studio spaces until 1961, their relationship was already strained by 1959. That year Rauschenberg acquired a studio space in Florida, and two years later, Johns took a studio on Edisto Island in South Carolina. Although they still spent some time together in New York, both increasingly went their own separate ways.

The end of such an influential and formative relationship had a huge emotional impact on Johns, and he immersed himself in his work as well as the linguistic philosophic works of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the poetry of Hart Crane. In 1963, he noted he "had the sense of arriving at a point where there was no place to stand." However, he continued to expand the fragmented focus and ambiguous meanings of his works. While he was involved with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company throughout the 1960s, he served as the artistic director from 1967 through 1980. In 1968, Johns designed the set decor for Walkaround Time after one of his most admired artworks, Duchamp's The Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even) (1915-23). Starting in 1960, he began a long-lasting working relationship with Tatyana Grosman at Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE), where he created over 120 prints over the decade. Many of his prints echoed the subjects of his paintings, while others expanded his visual repertoire, but all formed a critical dialogue with the rest of his oeuvre. During the 1960s, he also began to further integrate physical, sculptural elements into his paintings, a practice inherited from Duchamp and Rauschenberg.

Late Period

Jasper Johns Photo

After his Edisto Island studio burned down in 1968, Johns split his time between New York City, St. Martin, and Stony Point, New York; he bought studios at the latter two in the early 1970s. During this period, Johns introduced the use of the motif of crosshatching, or line clusters, into his repertoire, and this style dominated his output through the early 1980s. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Johns' work took a more introspective turn as he included specifically autobiographical, introspective content in his work. Although, as Johns pointed out, "There is a period in which I began to use images from my life, but everything you use is from your life."

Johns became increasingly more reclusive in the decades after his break from Rauschenberg, almost never giving interviews, and maintaining a very quiet public persona. However, he continued to have close contact with a select few of the art world's insiders; Philip Johnson designed the entertainment center that frames Johns' "latest greatest" wall in his St. Martin Studio, while the former Senior Consultant for Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum, Nan Rosenthal, and her husband, lawyer Henry Cortesi, helped Johns name his Catenary series (1999) when the couple visited Johns in that same tropical studio in the late 1990s. He created his most recent series of prints with Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) in 2011, still experimenting with many recurring motifs in varying mediums.

Johns made headlines again in August 2013, after his studio assistant from 1988 until 2012, James Meyer, was charged with the theft of six and a half million dollars worth of art from a folder of works that Johns had prohibited from being sold. Meyer was in charge of that folder and absconded with the 22 works from Johns' studio in Sharon, Connecticut, to sell them through an unidentified gallery in New York, after claiming they were gifts from Johns. Johns did not comment on the theft, but he did fire Meyer shortly after discovering the missing works. Johns currently shares his time between his studios in Sharon, Connecticut, where he moved in the 1990s, and St. Martin, and is presently represented by the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York.

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Jasper Johns Portrait

As part of the crucial Neo-Dada movement, Johns bridged the aesthetic gap between Abstract Expressionism and Pop art during the late 1950s, but to this day, he continues to expand his subjects, materials, and styles. Pop artists, like Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist, benefitted from Johns' groundbreaking turn to the outside world, which presented everyday objects and mass-produced goods as the subject matter of fine art. Through his exploration of the mutable meanings of images and symbols, Johns also paved the way for the Conceptual art movement of the 1960s. In his collaborations with performance artists like Merce Cunningham and Allan Kaprow, Johns' expanded artistic practice helped usher in movements and groups like Fluxus, body art, and the general performance art movement of the 1970s. While Pop artists directly inherited Johns' representation of the outside world, Postmodernism's aesthetic of bricolage is heir to his interest in appropriation, the multiplicity of meanings, and semiotic play. Ultimately, Johns and his Neo-Dada contemporaries shifted the focus of the American avant-garde, heralding the experimentation and viewer interaction that would come to dominate the art of the decades following his explosive arrival on the New York art scene in 1958.


"I tend to like things that already exist."
Jasper Johns
"I feel that works of art are an opportunity for people to construct meaning, so I don't usually tell what they mean. It conveys to people that they have to participate."
Jasper Johns
"Early on I was very involved with the notion of the painting as an object and tended to attack that idea from different directions."
Jasper Johns
"In my early work, I tried to hide my personality, my psychological state, my emotions. This was partly due to my feelings about myself and partly due to my feelings about painting at the time. I sort of stuck to my guns for a while but eventually it seemed like a losing battle. Finally one must simply drop the reserve."
Jasper Johns
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