Why Jasper Johns Is an Icon of 20th-Century Painting

Jon Mann
Dec 14, 2017 11:03PM

This past fall, the 87-year-old American artist Jasper Johns revealed plans to turn his 170-acre retreat in rural Sharon, Connecticut, into an artists’ residence upon his death. Recognized as one of America’s finest painters and printmakers, Johns intends to create an endowment that will allow the retreat to welcome not only visual artists, but poets, musicians, and dancers for three-month sojourns.

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 John Cage, the dancer-choreographer Merce Cunningham, and his own longtime partner Robert Rauschenberg, a visual artist. Taking cues from Dada master Marcel Duchamp, Johns and Rauschenberg questioned the very nature of art, leading them to be known as Neo-Dada artists—as well as helping to inspire Pop Art via their concern in vernacular imagery, and influencing Conceptual Art through their focus on language and semiotics.

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 Abstract Expressionism, reigned supreme. Johns achieved this most famously by covering supports with symbols like flags, targets, and maps that, abstracted and reconsidered, only seemed to have fixed meanings and actually suggested more questions than answers. What, then, can we say about Jasper Johns and the purposefully inscrutable art that made him one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century?

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?

Jasper Johns
Untitled (From the Color Numeral Series), 1969
Burning in Water

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 Action Painters like Willem de Kooning, eschewing the crisp, clear coloring and delineations of America’s national symbol in favor of rougher edges and a textured, impasto surface.

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 Surrealist artist René Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” conundrum from 1929—in which he juxtaposed a rendering of a pipe with the words, in French, “This is not a pipe.” What the viewer sees—and at first presumes to understand through visual recognition—ultimately evades meaning. There both is and isn’t a flag.

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.

Jasper Johns
Target with Plaster Casts, 1979-1980
Gregg Shienbaum Fine Art

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 Sturtevant) had technically been shown before, incorporated into Rauschenberg’s collaged artwork Short Circuit (1955), where it was revealed by opening a cabinet door—partly hidden as one symbol in a composition of many elements, further obscuring any possible message.

Why does his work matter?

“We worked for years to get rid of all that,” the painter of abstract color fields Mark Rothko famously quipped after seeing figuration on display in Johns’s solo show. The conceptual differences between the two artists are pronounced. If Abstract Expressionist painters like Rothko produced deeply personal works and theorized heavily as to how they were thick with hidden meaning, Johns created figurative works out of instantly recognizable symbols, then rejected the idea that they had any defined meaning.

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 Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne.

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 Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya, Munch, and Picasso as one of the greatest printmakers of any era.”

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.”

Jon Mann

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.