American Painter and Printmaker
Summary of Jasper Johns
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.
- 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-20th century America.
Biography of Jasper Johns
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.
Important Art by Jasper Johns
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.
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.
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 revealed 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.