Why Jasper Johns Is an Icon of 20th-Century Painting
This past fall, the 87-year-old American artist
It makes perfect sense that Johns would see the value in fostering multidisciplinary artist communities. In the 1950s and ’60s, when he was living and working in New York City, Johns collaborated with talents like the composer
Still active in the arts today, Johns—who in 2011 received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award bestowed by the U.S. government—is perhaps best known for reintroducing figurative imagery into American modern art at a moment when abstraction, specifically
Who is Jasper Johns?
Born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1930, Johns spent his childhood and adolescence moving around South Carolina as a result of complications from his parents’ divorce. After three semesters at the University of South Carolina, he transferred to the Parsons School of Design in New York City in 1949, taking a leave of absence from 1951–53 to serve in the Korean War, during which he was stationed in Japan.
Settling back in New York in 1953, he met and began his relationship with Rauschenberg, which helped to ground him in the art scene and to put his work in front of the renowned dealer Leo Castelli, who would offer Johns his first one-man show at his gallery in 1958. When MoMA director Alfred Barr, Jr. showed up at the gallery and bought three paintings—an unprecedented purchase from a virtually unknown artist—the artist was officially “discovered.”
What is he known for?
Perhaps Johns’s most famous painting, Flag (1954–55) was foremost among those that entered MoMA’s collection. (This was not one of those purchased by Barr, but a later donation from the architect Philip Johnson, after Barr requested he buy it for the museum, fearing that the acquisitions committee would consider him unpatriotic.) The painting is a fairly accurate representation of the American flag, in encaustic on collaged paper and fabric, a favorite medium for Johns. But the artist approached the flag with the gestural hand of
As such, Flag calls into question its relationship to the American flag: Is Flag, in fact, a flag? Is it a representation of a flag? Is every American flag simply a representation of some predetermined notion of the American flag, a mere reflection of an idea? With Flag, Johns updated the
Indeed, through the very act of purchasing or displaying Johns’s works, the meaning of its image is shifted. Such was the case with Castelli’s purchase of the artist’s Target with Plaster Casts (1955). Art critic Robert Hughes said as much in an episode from his 1980 television series The Shock of the New: “Once a target is seen aesthetically, as a unified design, its use is lost. It stops being a sign and becomes an image. We do not know it so clearly. Its obviousness becomes, in some degree, speculative.”
But what of the titular “plaster casts”? Johns placed nine small wooden boxes at the top of the target, containing models of dismembered body parts: face, hand, ear, penis.
One hypothesis lies in the fact that the artist was named after an American military hero and served in the army himself. Could Flag be autobiographical, owing to his namesake or Johns’s personal tour of duty? Is Target? What would these symbols mean to Johns versus someone from Japan after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or Korea after the conflict? Are the plaster casts seen in Target the disembodied mutilations of the front lines? Of oppression and surveillance at home?
Or might they speak to the home front, where McCarthyism ran rampant in the decade following World War II, targeting both Communists and—in greater numbers but in a quieter capacity—homosexuals? In 1953, Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, barring gays from working in the federal government. Given Johns’s sexuality—something of an open secret—do these bodies recall the silent and closeted desires for which he could become a target?
To paraphrase Hughes: Like the target itself, the obviousness of the human figure in Target becomes largely speculative. We don’t totally recognize our own form. Fittingly, a version of Flag (reproduced by the artist
Why does his work matter?
“We worked for years to get rid of all that,” the painter of abstract color fields
While Johns continued to produce paintings that incorporated Abstract Expressionism’s gestures and color blocking, he shifted the focus from the finished image to the concept behind it.
In the 1960s, influenced by the philosophies of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Johns pushed further into questions of language and signification in art. In Map (1961), Johns incorporated a technique he termed “brushmarking,” which entailed placing large brushstrokes like quasi-linguistic elements on the canvas to structure the image, not unlike the “constructive brushstroke” of the
In Map, Johns used brushmarking to render the map of the United States of America, complete with abstract drips, scrapes, gestures, and a stenciled label for each state. A familiar interplay comes to mind: What does the map of America represent? Whom does it represent? How do its parts communicate with one another, or with the whole? Again, Johns takes us to a place both familiar and unfamiliar, full of conceptual and semiotic possibility.
While Johns never allowed his conceptual pursuits to sour him on painting (Duchamp famously “quit” painting around 1913), he did make objects that experimented with the idea of the readymade. Playing with a throwaway joke made by de Kooning that Castelli could sell any object, even a couple of beer cans, Johns sculpted two cast-bronze cylinders on a base and painted them as Ballantine Ale cans.
With one can “opened,” belying its emptiness as a beverage and, perhaps, as a symbol, Johns turned the readymade on its head, carefully handcrafting two highly realistic cans.
Johns also produced a huge number of prints, owing partly to a working agreement forged in 1960 with Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE). Of this aspect of his production, the late Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Nan Rosenthal wrote in 2004 that “he ranks with
Johns combined imagery from several of his prior works into Decoy (1971), a print he made at ULAE that, the Tate notes, “represents the first use by an artist of the hand-fed offset lithography press.” The greater flexibility that the proofing press afforded allowed him to create a complex composition of lettering (the “rainbow” script), imagery (plaster cast of a body part, ale can), and gestural abstraction.
“Without question, he’s one of the most important painters of his generation,” said Robert Storr, then-dean of Yale University’s School of Art, when asked about Johns for a New York Times piece on the artist’s 2008 exhibition “Gray” at the Met. “He puts bits and pieces of painting and conceptual practice together in a way that nobody has done.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Alfred Barr Jr. purchased four works by Johns in 1958, including Flag (1954-55). The purchase of the work was made by Philip Johnson.
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