Essential Tips for Collecting Jasper Johns Prints
While Jasper Johns may be most famous for his paintings, when it comes to printmaking, there are few artists who have been as prolific. “He is one of the most important printmakers of the 20th and 21st centuries,” said Lindsay Griffith, head of the prints and multiples department at Christie’s. “He’s a very technically gifted printmaker with a commitment to the medium, and printmaking is a deeply important element to his practice.”
With a massive, two-museum retrospective now open at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), right now is a great time for both new and established collectors to explore all that Johns has to offer in his more than 60 years of printmaking, a practice he continues to this day at the age of 91. Perhaps best of all, Johns’s prints are still relatively affordable, typically starting out at just a few thousand dollars. We spoke to leading experts about the best ways to approach what can often feel like the overwhelming task of sifting through and choosing from such an expansive plethora of works.
Find out what you like
As with any artist, it’s important for a prospective collector to get familiar with Johns’s oeuvre as a whole in order to decide exactly what they want. The shows at the Whitney and PMA are perfect places to start. Johns has a tendency to repeat certain imagery in many of his works through a variety of different media (targets and flags are among the best-known examples), so collectors ought to be on the lookout for specific themes that resonate with them.
“Johns’s paintings and sculptures are precursors to a lot of his prints,” said Cary Leibowitz, worldwide co-head of editions at Phillips. “If you really love a painting, there’s probably a related print.” And given the nature of prints as multiples, even if a collector misses out on buying a particular image, there will likely be another version available, so there’s no need to rush. “Research a print as you would a painting,” added Leibowitz. “Beginning collectors shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions; any reputable dealer is always happy to talk.”
Johns’s catalogue raisonné is another good resource for collectors. According to Susan Sheehan of Susan Sheehan Gallery, it contains almost 300 entries of editioned and unique prints by the artist. “And those only go until 1993,” she added. Based in New York, her gallery specializes in printmaking and frequently works with Johns’s prints. “There are a lot of Johns images around, so narrow it down by what period you like, and then spend a year looking before you even think about buying,” she advised. Collector Leslie Garfield, who has been “smitten with Johns” and collecting prints by the artist since the 1970s, also suggested subscribing to all the auction catalogues to keep track of both availability and prices.
“I always say buy what you like, not necessarily what’s in fashion,” said Mary Bartow, senior vice president of Sotheby’s and head of the prints department, adding that while it may feel more secure to know that other collectors have similar works, if a collector doesn’t genuinely like what they buy, they are more likely to regret the purchase should the price for the work fluctuate in the future.
Condition, condition, condition
“In real estate, it’s location, location, location. In print collecting, it’s condition, condition, condition,” said Sheehan. For this reason, it’s important to wait for the highest quality print available before making an offer or a bid. Experts also encourage a thorough reading of condition reports before making a purchase, keeping in mind that the older a work is, the more problems it might have.
“Galleries and collectors are extraordinarily precise about condition,” said Bartow. “If a [specific work’s] condition bothers you, just pass on it. It’ll be easy to find another.” She also advised collectors to decide on a budget and to buy one work for that price, rather than multiple works, so that they end up with the highest quality print possible.
In addition to being attentive to a work’s quality, collectors should also generally be aware of the potential for fakes. Thankfully, Johns hasn’t been the subject of many imitators, at least for the time being. “He’s too complex a printmaker,” explained Bartow. “Unlike Warhol, Picasso, Chagall, Lichtenstein, or Haring [artists with many fake prints in circulation], Johns’s prints have layers and layers and layers of detail, making them hard to fake. His market also hasn’t shot up astronomically high, so his work is not yet worth faking.”
The importance of framing and display
Once a collector has their new Johns print, they’ll want to keep it in the same pristine condition in which it was purchased. A good frame, according to all the experts we spoke to, is absolutely essential. “Get archival framing,” advised Sheehan. While this can often cost somewhere in the thousand-dollar range, the investment is very worthwhile.
One should also be careful when deciding where to display the work. Humidity and direct sunlight are to be avoided at all costs—humidity causes brown spots, while sunlight will bleach all the color off of a print in no time. “Do not hang it over your air conditioner or dishwasher!” Griffith warned. Getting UV-protective plexiglass and/or having the frame hermetically sealed is also helpful. As for finding the perfect location to hang a print, Garfield suggested hallways or rooms where the shades are drawn. Collectors can also get special protective shades for their windows.
Regardless of where a collector chooses to hang their new Johns print, it’s a purchase that should bring a lot of satisfaction—not just from the piece itself, but also from the process of researching and finding it. “Johns would like people making the puzzle their own way,” mused Leibowitz.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Susan Sheehan Gallery represents Johns, and that the artist’s catalogue raisonné contains almost 300 entries of unique prints. Susan Sheehan Gallery frequently works with Johns’s prints, but does not represent the artist. The artist’s catalogue raisonné contains almost 300 entries when counting both editioned and unique prints.