Johns, Jasper (1930—)

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Johns, Jasper (1930—)

With only two years of formal art training from the University of South Carolina, Jasper Johns moved to New York City at the age of twenty-four. A southerner, Johns was born in Augusta, Georgia, and brought up in the Carolinas. He supported himself as a window decorator and a salesman in a Manhattan bookstore while painting during his spare time. Johns painted objects that were familiar to both him and his audience. He once stated, "Using the design of the American flag took care of a great deal for me because I didn't have to design it. So I went on to similar things like targets—things the mind already knows. That gave me room to work on other levels." The innovative way that Johns approached common subjects attracted the attention of art dealer Leo Castelli. Castelli was visiting Johns's upstairs neighbor and friend, the artist Robert Rauschenberg, in 1957, when the art dealer asked for an introduction to Johns. Castelli, immediately taken with the paintings of flags and targets including White Flag (1955) and Target with Plaster Casts (1955), added Johns to his stable of gallery artists, beginning a relationship that has lasted more than thirty-five years. In 1958, Johns had his first solo exhibition at the Castelli gallery; it was an unqualified critical success for both artist and dealer, establishing both of their reputations. The show sold out and the Museum of Modern Art bought a total of five pieces, an unprecedented amount from an artist's first show.

Signaling the end of Abstract Expressionism, Jasper Johns's paintings, prints, and sculptures helped usher in the era of American Pop Art in the late 1950s; additionally, his artwork became instrumental to the tenets of minimalism and conceptual art. Beginning in the 1950s, Johns's appropriated images of flags, targets, maps, the alphabet, numbers, and text contrasted sharply with the abstracted, emotion filled paintings that exemplified Abstract Expressionism. His use of commonplace symbols focused the attention onto the surface of the canvas. His chosen media, encaustic, oil, or acrylic paints, were as important, if not more important than his subject matter. His artwork inspired several generations of artists and his adaptation of cultural icons and mass media signage have become almost as familiar as the images they mimic.

Johns's early work in the 1950s and 1960s reflected the influences of Marcel Duchamp and the found object; Johns collected items such as ceramic pieces, brooms, and rulers, and attached them to his canvases. Several actual sized, cast sculptures of everyday items such as beer cans, light bulbs, and flashlights along with Johns's painted repetition of flags, numbers, and letters became abstracted and ceased to exist as powerful objects; the representations become tools of the medium and exert their power only as an artwork. Johns's artwork challenges the line between art and reality. His concern was with questioning the basic nature of art, with the process as the significant core of the works. The process, to Johns, was of utmost importance and his images were often the result of chance or accident. Variations in letters and numbers were consequently a result of the types of stencils available. Decisions on placement did not necessarily stem from aesthetics, but from necessity; for example, the bronze cast elements of a light bulb, Bronze (1960-61), came back to Johns in pieces—the bulb, the socket, and the cord. Johns left them unassembled, feeling that the pieces issued a provocative statement in that form.

With the beginning of the 1970s, Johns's work became increasingly abstract. In the mid-1970s, he adopted a method of cross-hatched painting as seen in The Dutch Wives (1975). The wide brush strokes covered the entire canvas, again focusing in on the process and technical aspects of his medium; Johns has remarked that he was "Trying to make paintings about painting." However, this abstract period soon gave way to a more representational era in the 1980s. Johns began to pay homage to his artistic inspirations, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, and Edvard Munch, in a body of work that embodied some of his most revealing personal and psychological matter. John's contemplation on the cycle of life and death in The Seasons (1986) incorporates a shadowy figure of Johns's body; this imagery refers to Picasso's The Shadow (1953).

The paintings, sculpture, prints, and drawings by Johns all contain either biographical elements or iconographical components from the second half of the twentieth century. Johns changed the direction of American painting with his adaptation of common icons and his emphasis on the technique of painting. His later works, filled with psychological dramatics, continue to have the impact of earlier works that redefined the common symbols and icons of American culture. Often reproduced, Johns's Flags and Targets have become popular greeting card and poster images, introducing new generations to his work.

—Jennifer Jankauskas

Further Reading:

Brundage, Susan, editor, with essay by Judith Goldman. Jasper Johns—35 Years—Leo Castelli. New York, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1993.

Crichton, Michael. Jasper Johns. New York, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1994.

Varnedoe, Kirk. Jasper Johns: A Retrospective. New York, Harry N. Abrams, 1996.

Varnedoe, Kirk, editor. Jasper Johns: Writing, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews. New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1996.

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Johns, Jasper (1930—)

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