Amber Bush - Jasper Johns

It is the common place of the objects that make Jasper Johns' paintings so intriguing. Targets, American flags, numbers, and letters of the alphabet are typical subject matter in much of Johns' work. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a time of abstract expressionism, his work filled a void in the modern art scene. Behind these familiar objects he painted, Johns explains, "There may or may not be an idea, and the meaning may just be that the painting exists" (qtd. His paintings were more concerned with how the paint was applied, rather than what the subject matter could mean.

Born in 1930 in America, Jasper Johns knew from a young age that he wanted to be an artist. He studied at the University of Southern Carolina before dropping out and moving to New York in 1949. After two terms at a commercial art college and time in military service, Johns met the artist Robert Rauschenberg in 1954. In the beginning they designed window displays together and used the money they earned for their own art. They had a close friendship and Rauschenberg played an important part in Johns' artistic development.

It was Rauschenberg who influenced Johns to take his art more seriously. Unlike the abstract expressionists who came before both Johns and Rauschenberg, the two artists dealt with the cultural or manmade objects over expressing feelings. They were inspired by Marcel Duchamp's "readymades" which was a term describing objects he found and then put into an artistic setting. Johns in particular was more interested in the "emphatically hierarchical, organized image" associated with contemporary art over the "nonhierarchical or quality of so much Abstract Expressionist painting" (Stokstad 1127).

Johns' work relied heavily on subtlety. Very subtle gradations of color in the paint capture and reflect light in a different way than the original object ever could. This use of color in the encaustic paint, applied by a painterly touch, requires the viewer to see the objects for something different than their normal purpose.

Johns was interested in finding the line between an object and a representation of an object. Whether he was painting a flag, target, or some other already existing object, the painting would never be anything but a painting. You would not use the painting the same way you would use the actual object. While you would never burn one of his flag paintings, you would not salute it either. His work was literal by representing imagery and objects in the most recognizable way. This style "avoided the sometimes uncomfortable defensiveness viewers felt with nonobjective art" (Wilkins 562).
An important milestone in Jasper Johns' career was his first one-man show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1958. The gallery owner, Leo Castelli, visited Rauschenberg's studio and saw Johns' work for the first time. Castelli was so impressed with Johns' ability and inventiveness that he offered him a show. At that first exhibition, the Museum of Modern Art purchased three pieces which sent a clear message that Johns was to be an important character in the art world. Thirty years later, his paintings sold for more than any living artist in history.


The 28 year old Johns saw his artistic reputation confirmed after this show. He won over critiques and the show was a success. The review by Robert Rosenblum stated:

To explain the fascination of these works, one might refer to their disarming rearrangements of customary esthetic and practical responses, but one should also mention that commanding sensuous presence of their primer-like imagery, which has the rudimentary, irreducible potency of the best of Abstract Expressionism. And not least, there is John's elegant craftsmanship, which lends these pictures the added poignancy of a beloved, handmade transcription of unloved, machine made images (Castelli 1993).

While some gave the show a positive review, others were not as impressed by Johns' work, seeing it as uninteresting representation of uninteresting objects. But for Johns, the importance of his work was not in what was being depicted, but instead in looking at something common with a fresh perspective.   The Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, was a great influence on Johns. Wittgenstein recognized both a concern for logic and a desire to investigate the time when logic breaks down. Johns was exploring his own ideas of understanding logic through his paintings.


Well known for his series of flag paintings, Flag (1954) is one of Johns' key works. Made of encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric mounted plywood (42 x 60 5/8"). Inspired by a dream, the painting depicts the American flag rendered in heavily textured brushwork. Johns continued his study of flags by varying the media and color of the flags he depicted. He continued his trend of creating works of common objects when he painted such things as targets, numbers, and maps. In the 1960s, he began to introduce some of his early sculptural ideas into painting. While some of his early sculpture had used everyday objects such as paint brushes, beer cans, and light bulbs, these later works would incorporate them in collage.

1970's style In the 1970s, a crosshatching motif characterized much of his work. The work is more monotone than his previous work as seen in the painting Scent. This style of work continued to dominate Johns' work through the 1970s.


In the late 1980s, Johns broke ground again with a four-painting cycle entitled The Seasons, shown in New York. As the example above, called Spring, illustrates, the 75 by 50-inch paintings were considered especially significant in American art history. This painting was a departure from the style of his paintings in the 1970s. He became interested in an autobiographical element in his work. For some, the new sentimental work seemed like a contradiction to his earlier works.

Through Johns' career, collaboration was an important part in advancing his own art, and he worked regularly with a number of artists including Robert Morris, Andy Warhol, and Bruce Neumann. The impact of Johns' work is still felt today. He was art in most major museums and his work is continuing to inspire today's artists.

Spring by Johns


Public Broadcasting Station. <>
Rosenthal, Mark. Jasper Johns: Work Since 1974. New York: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1990.
Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. Revised Edition. Vol 2. New York: Prentice Hall, 1999.
Wilkins, David G., Bernard Schultz, and Katheryn M. Linduff. Art Past, Art Present. 3rd Ed. New York: Harry Abrams, 1997.
Castelli, Leo. Jasper Johns: 35 Years. New York: Rapoport/Metropolitan, 1993.
The Bergen Museum <>