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. Pbs.org). 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"
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"
||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
|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
||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 (42½ 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 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.
Public Broadcasting Station. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/johns_j.html>
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:
The Bergen Museum <http://www.thebergenmuseum.com/jasper_johns.html>