Johns, Jasper

views updated May 23 2018

Jasper Johns


Born May 15, 1930, in Augusta, GA; son of Jasper (a farmer) and Jean (Riley) Johns. Education: Attended University of South Carolina, 1948-49; attended commercial art school in New York, NY, 1949.


HomeNew York, NY. Agent—c/o Leo Castelli Gallery, 420 West Broadway, New York, NY 10012.


Painter, printmaker, and sculptor. Bookstore salesman and window display artist, New York, NY, 1952-59. Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, director, 1963—; Merce Cunningham Dance Company, New York, NY, ballet designer in productions, including Walkabout, 1968, Second Hand, 1970, TV Re-Run, 1970, Borst Park, 1972, and Un Jour ou Deux, 1973. Exhibitions: Individual exhibitions: Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, NY, 1958, 1960-61, 1963, 1966, 1970, 1976, 1984; Galerie Rive Droite, Paris, France, 1959, 1961; Galleria d'Arte del Naviglio, Milan, Italy, 1959; Tweed Gallery, Minneapolis, MN, 1960; Columbia Museum of Art, South Carolina, SC, 1960; Everett Ellin Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, 1962; Galerie Ileana Sonnabend, Paris, 1962; Jewish Museum, New York, NY, 1964; Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, England, 1964; Pasadena Museum of Art, CA, 1965; Minami Gallery, Tokyo, Japan, 1965; American Embassy, London, 1965; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England, 1965; Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 1966; Galerie Ricke, Cologne, Germany, 1968; Galerie Buren, Stockholm, Sweden, 1968, 1972; Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 1968, 1970-71, 1972, 1996-97; Castelli Graphics, New York, NY, 1969, 1971, 1976-77, 1980, 1982; Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland, 1969, 1979; University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, 1969; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA, 1969; Castelli-Whitney Gallery, New York, NY, 1969; David Whitney Gallery, New York, NY, 1969; New Gallery, Cleveland, OH, 1970; Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA, 1970; University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1970; Kunsthalle, Bern, Switzerland, 1971; Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN, 1971; Dayton's Gallery 12, Minneapolis, 1971; Museum of the Sea, Hilton Head, SC, 1971; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL, 1971; Marion Koogler McNay Art Institute, San Antonio, TX, 1971; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX, 1972; Heath Gallery, Atlanta, GA, 1972; South Texas Art Museum, Corpus Christi, 1972; Fendrick Gallery, Washington, DC, 1972; Emily Lowe Gallery, Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, 1972; Gertrude Kasle Gallery, Detroit, MI, 1973; Galerie de Gestlo, Hamburg, Germany, 1974; Knoedler Contemporary Prints, New York, NY, 1974; Lo Spazil-Galleria d'Art, Rome, Italy, 1974; Lucio Amelio Modern Art Agency, Naples, Italy, 1974; Galerie Folker Skulima, Berlin, Germany, 1974; Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, England, 1974; Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield, England, 1974; Herbert Art Gallery, Coventry, England, 1974; Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England, 1974; City Art Gallery, Leeds, England, 1975; Serpentine Gallery, London, 1975; Janie C. Lee Gallery, Houston, 1976; Brooke Alexander Inc., New York, NY, 1977, 1985; Whitney Museum of American Art, 1977; Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany, 1978; Georges Pompidou Center, Paris, 1978; Hayward Gallery, London, England, 1978; Seibu Museum of Art, Tokyo, 1978; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1978; Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles, 1978; Galerie Nancy Gillespie, Paris, 1978; Galerie Valeur, Nagoya, 1978, 1979; Center for the Arts, Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, 1978; John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco, 1978; Janie C. Lee Gallery, Houston, 1979; Stätliche Graphische, Munich, 1979; Stadtische Galerie, Stadelschen Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, Germany, 1979; Kunstmuseum, Hannover, Germany, 1979; Tucson Museum of Art, AZ, 1979; Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, Denmark, 1980; Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 1980; Tyler Museum of Art, TX, 1980; Tate Gallery, London, 1981; L. A. Louver Gallery, Venice, CA, 1982; Akira Ikeda Gallery, Tokyo, 1983; Delahunty Gallery, Dallas, 1983; Fondation Maeght, St. Paul de Vence, France, 1986; St. Louis Art Museum, MO, 1986; Centro Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain, 1987; United States pavilion, 43rd Biennale, Venice, 1988; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1990; Horodner Romley Gallery, New York, NY, 1995; and Cleveland Museum of Art, OH, 2003-04. Also participated in numerous group exhibitions worldwide. Permanent collections: Museum of Modern Art; Whitney Museum; Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Tate Gallery, London; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands; Kunstmuseum, Basel; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; and Seibu Museum, Tokyo. Military service: Served in U.S. Army in Japan, 1949.

Awards, Honors

First Prize, Print Biennale, Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, 1967; Prize, São Paulo Bienal, 1967; Skowhegan Award for Painting, 1972; Skowhegan Award for Graphics, 1977; Mayor's Award of Honor for Art and Culture, New York, NY, 1978.


(Illustrator) Samuel Beckett, Fizzles, Whitney Museum (New York, NY), 1977.

Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, edited by Kirk Varnedoe, Museum of Modern Art/Harry Abrams (New York, NY), 1996.

Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, edited by Kirk Varnedoe and Roberta Bernstein, Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY), 2003.

Contributor of articles to magazines and journals, including Artforum, ARTnews, Art in America, and Juilliard.


One of the leading figures of the American Pop art movement of the mid-twentieth century, Jasper Johns became instantly famous for turning everyday objects into art tropes. Writing in the New York Times, Deborah Solomon noted that "no artist was ever catapulted into fame more suddenly than Johns." In 1958, at the tender age of twenty-eight, Johns had a one-man show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York that overnight turned him into a pioneer of modern art, the next stage in art development after abstract expressionism. He took iconic objects—the American flag, targets, numbers—and by using wax-based paint and a technique known as encaustic, he transformed these mundane objects into art, "focusing attention," as an essayist in the International Dictionary of Art and Artists wrote, "on the act of painting and bringing out the profound ambiguity between image and object, and the constant interplay between painted illusion and real object." Such a style influenced the next generation of painters, including minimalist Frank Stella and pop artists such as Andy Warhol, with his paintings of Campbell soup cans, Claes Oldenburg, and his hamburger sculpture, and Roy Lichtenstein, who "elevated comic book blondes to the realm of high art," as Solomon further noted. These artists "were all exploring the ideas set forth in Johns' … paintings of commonplace objects," according to Solomon.

A Conflicting Legacy

Though Johns is acknowledged as one of the great American painters, some critics see that appellation as somewhat inflated. Eric Gibson, for example, writing in World and I, allowed the originality of his

early paintings: "They were so deadpan and so literally figuratively down-to-earth that it was as though somebody had turned on the lights and turned off the music at the Abstract Expressionist party." These early paintings have, as Gibson noted, a "surprising power." Gibson further explained, however, that "in the years since, Johns' reputation has largely rested on that fantastic breakout ahead of the pack. Hardly mentioned is the fact that for the next decade he did little more than ring a series of changes on his initial subjects in a variety of media." There were the crosshatching paintings of the 1970s and then the collage or multiple image paintings of the 1980s and 1990s with their hidden meanings, like a "kind of coded diary," according to Gibson. This "hermetic" turn to Johns's painting is, for Gibson, also a turn off: "It's hard to get interested in someone who wants to talk only about themselves but doesn't want you to know what he's saying." Similarly, Jed Perl, writing in the New Republic, called much of Johns's art "stalemates and dead-ends and insoluble puzzles; they're headaches waiting to happen."

For Perl, Johns's oeuvre is a watered-down version of that of Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp. "Over and over again, Johns replays the same old Dadaist is-it-art-or-not? routines, until the everything-is-nothing mantra has turned your mind to mush." Perl did allow a "certain fidgety elegance" to Johns's work, but also complained that "now Johns is such a pervasive influence that it is sometimes difficult for people to separate his send-ups from the real thing." Time magazine's Robert Hughes, reviewing a 1996 retrospective of Johns's work at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) also wondered about Johns's reputation versus his actual work. "Is there, or has there ever been a modern American artist with a more peculiarly sacrosanct reputation than Jasper Johns? If so, none spring to mind," Hughes noted. In fact, Hughes went on to observe, "We are so used by now to being told that Johns is an artist of the utmost profundity and difficulty that we assume, on peering into the well of his talent, that the fault for not recognizing masterpieces lies with ourselves." In fact, however, Hughes pointed out that "you can't traverse this [retrospective exhibition] without getting a sense of decline, of gradual burnout…. Time and again, after the late '80s, one comes up against Johnses that seem to have no raison d'etre, and are valued merely because Johns did them."

Johns certainly has his champions, as well. Newsweek contributor Peter Plagens felt that the 1996 retrospective was a "grand, meaty show," and that it took "an artist so radical on the inside that he's not afraid to look conservative on the outside" to "pull it off." Nation writer Arthur C. Danto, reviewing the same retrospective, felt that Johns's career is "remarkable in itself in part because eyes are a lot less innocent today than when Flag was painted, and this is due in no small measure to Johns himself." Like most critics, Danto had high praise for Johns's early work, which included painted flags, targets, maps, letters, and numerals: "The representation/reality ambiguity for this class of objects made Johns's work of this period intoxicating, witty and brilliant." And it was not simply a matter of wit for Danto. The critic further noted that "Johns's handling of paint was simply marvelous. He could have been an Abstract Expressionist if he had wanted to; the brushwork had the lyricism of its greatest exponents. Simply as painting, Flag is delicious." And for Danto, Johns's talent did not lessen over the years: "Johns has never relinquished his Abstract Expressionist credentials in the subsequent adventure of his art, and his brushwork remains one of the aesthetic glories of our time." Danto also had praise for the artist's "increasingly esoteric subjects" of the 1980s and 1990s, finding that he was able to master this new genre "without losing either his philosophical intuitiveness or his marvelous touch."

Thus two camps emerge: those who find Jasper Johns a pioneer of modern art and those who find him a bit of a charlatan. It is a paradox, a "representation/reality ambiguity" the like of which Johns himself is fond of investigating in his own paintings. Reviewing a 1990 exhibition of Johns's work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Mark Stevens noted in the New Republic that since 1960 "the art of Jasper Johns has been scrutinized. And scrutinized. And scrutinized…. What explains such obsessive attention? … Even if one considers him a great artist, and many still do not, history has often treated great artists with indifference or doled out attention inconsistently." Stevens answered his own question in part by going back to the seminal work of this twentieth-century painter, Flag. "By transforming the national symbol into an individual, changing, evanescent image," Stevens wrote, "Johns became the emblematic artist of his period." In an earlier New Republic article, Stevens also examined Johns's standing in the art world. "For many," Stevens wrote, "Jasper Johns has become the last Great Artist in the modernist tradition." Stevens explained that Johns "occupies this position because he paints well, but also because he fits certain stereotypes…. Johns fought the last big battle in postwar art. In place of [Jackson] Pollock's and [Willem] De Kooning's warm spontaneity, he proposed a cool reserve. Instead of the private scribble

[Image not available for copyright reasons]

of the self, he offered the 'given' or public image…. He became a father to the subsequent styles of pop, minimal, and conceptual art."

Southern Beginnings

Born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1930, Johns was the son of a farmer. His early years were ones of loss: he was just a year old when his mother left his alcoholic father. However, soon, his mother discovered that she could not provide for her only son and sent him to live with his grandfather in Allendale, South Carolina. "My family were very narrow in a sense, provincial, sort of country people," Johns told Helen Dudar in Smithsonian magazine. "The men were all farmers and the women schoolteachers." Then, almost finished with the third grade, Johns lost his grandfather and was shipped back to his remarried mother and her new family. After a year there he again moved to live with an aunt who was a schoolteacher. He spent six years with her and then moved back in with his mother to finish high school.

After high school graduation Johns spent a few semesters at the University of South Carolina. Though he demonstrated an early interest in art, he still had no real direction. Then he moved to New York where he attended an art school, but was later drafted into the U.S. military, serving in Japan. During his service he developed an appreciation for Japanese art. Back in New York, he took work in a bookstore, painting in his spare time. In 1954 he met the artist Robert Rauschenberg, who introduced the younger man to some of the avant-garde of the city, including composer John Cage and his companion, Merce Cunningham, the choreographer. Johns would ultimately design sets for Cunningham's ballets, but in the meantime he was working along with Rauschenberg as a window designer for stylish shops. The two also lived in the same building and thus saw and critiqued one another's work daily.

Johns destroyed all his early work in 1954, wanting to get a fresh start. Then, inspired by a dream, came his painting Flag, exhibited that same year. He chose this well-known object so that he did not have to deal with design, but could instead focus on the surface of the painting. Thereafter came other flags and paintings of everyday images including alphabets, numerals, targets, and maps. His Green Target was exhibited at the Jewish Museum in New York in a group show, and attracted the attention of gallery owner Leo Castelli, who gave the young artist his own show the following year. The show was a huge success; critics immediately perceived that

Johns was presenting the next stage in the developing exploration of the meaning of art, rejecting the rigidly non-representational aesthetic in order to depict objects that were transformed by the simple act of representation. Commentators also noted the subtle ironic humor in Johns' method of elevating a simple figure to the stature of art. Collectors, too, approved of Johns' approach; all the paintings in the exhibit were sold, and the Museum of Modern Art purchased four of his works. Deborah Solomon, in a 1988 appreciation in the New York Times, wrote: "No artist was ever catapaulted into fame more suddenly than Johns."

Seasons of an Artist

Since that time Johns's work has gone through three distinct phases: the pop work of the 1960s; the abstract crosshatching paintings of the 1970s; and the multiple image work of his later career. Johns's pop work picturing everyday objects and images lasted through the 1960s, focusing the viewer's attention onto the surface of the canvas. Here he used oil, encaustic, or acrylic paints. He also sculpted mundane objects such as a light bulb. In 1959 he met Duchamp and came more under the influence of Dadaist principles, experimenting with found objects such as brooms and pieces of ceramic, which he glued onto the canvas and labeled. He was also influenced by the philosophy of Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein. "Johns focuses attention on the painting as an object," noted a contributor for Contemporary Artists, "a thing in its own right, rather than a representation." A major motif in his work is "the theme of illusion versus reality and the constant questioning of reality and identity," according to this same critic. In False Start from 1959, Johns deals with visual puns, using swatches of blue, orange, red, and yellow, and then stenciling the names of other colors over these. In Fool's House he inserts a broom into the middle of the painting and labels it, as if asking whether or not the broom is an actual broom now that it no longer has the function of "broom."

In 1964, only six years after his first solo exhibition, Johns' works were displayed in retrospectives at the Jewish Museum in New York and the Whitechapel Gallery in London, an exceedingly unusual event for an artist of Johns' relatively young age. In 1977, another retrospective, this time at the Whitney Museum in New York, drew 4,100 visitors and subsequently travelled to San Francisco, Cologne, Paris, and Tokyo.

By the 1970s Johns was verging into abstraction, employing a crosshatching technique to create an image. The Dutch Wives of 1975, is an example of this style, in which the artist employs wide brush strokes to cover the entire canvas in crosshatching. This technique again focuses the viewer's eye on the technical aspects of the medium, rather than focusing on the content. He famously said of this period that he was attempting to "make paintings about painting."

More psychological in content are the multiple image paintings of his later period. These paintings often employ multiple panels as well, sometimes joined by visible hinges. Homage to earlier painters is paid up in such paintings, with references to Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, Leonardo da Vinci, or Edvard Munch. His Racing Thoughts from 1983, includes a painted illusion of the Mona Lisa, a photograph of his agent, Leo Castelli, one of his own crosshatch paintings, a nail, a faucet, some pottery, and a print by another artist, Barnett Newman. "The painting is a kind of interior monologue," according to Gibson. For this same critic, "the overarching theme of [Johns's] work is of a highly introverted artist quietly probing and articulating his own doubt in the face of the world—both the art world and the world at large." The Seasons from 1986, incorporates a shadowy figure of Johns's body. Some critics call this an homage to Picasso and his own 1954 work, The Shadow. This more personal and self-referential work is in stark contrast to the early period of Johns's creativity in which the focus was away from the artist and placed on the work. In that early work, as Grove Art Online contributor Michael Crichton noted, "He emphasized the ready-made and impersonal elements of his creations: the pre-existing imagery, the stenciled lettering, the unmixed primary colors, things that were 'not mine, but taken.'"

Over the years, Johns has also designed sets and costumes for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in New York—the inspiration for his painting Dancers on the Plane. He collaborated with Cunningham and John Cage on the ballet Un Jour ou Deux in 1973. One of Johns' most fruitful collaborations was with the renowned author Samuel Beckett; the 1977 volume Fizzles features five stories by Beckett and 33 etchings by Johns, considered to be among his finest works in that medium.

Johns's works continue to be highly sought-after; in 1980, Flag was purchased by the Whitney Museum for $1 million. In 1988 his Diver sold for $4.2 million, the highest sum ever paid for the work of a living artist at that time.

If you enjoy the works of Jasper Johns

If you enjoy the works of Jasper Johns, you may also want to check out the following:

The Pop Art of Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), Robert Rauschenberg (1925--), and Andy Warhol (1928-1987).

Dudar noted that "one of the hallmarks of a master is that he never stops exploring," and in that sense Johns is a modern master. "Few artists juggle such a range of materials," Dudar further observed. In addition to his works in oil and his sculptures and prints, Johns has also produced a large body of drawings. "Pen, pencil, charcoal, crayon, chalk, pastel, watercolor, and collaged scraps of newspapers may be put to the service of his drawings," according to Dudar. For Stevens "Johns is hardly jolly, but he is a playful pessimist, whose work has much in common with the game of hide-and-seek." This "playful pessimist" may not be to everyone's liking, but all agree that he profoundly altered the direction of modern painting. Stevens concluded: "Obviously Johns is not a painter who enters easily into either art or life. He is the prototypical intellectual, standing slightly apart, the outsider looking in. His playing will not charm those who like their art torn from the inside out. Nor will it appeal to activists with firm convictions. But Johns will delight those who feel that, in all seriousness, life is a game of mysterious rules played on the edge of chaos—and who take pleasure in some beautiful fiddling."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Barton, Stephanie and Lynn Zelevansky, Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons: Four Decades of Art from the Broad Collections, Harry M. Abrams (New York, NY), 2001.

Bernstein, Roberta, Jasper Johns' Paintings and Sculptures, 1954-1974: "The Changing Focus of the Eye," UMI Research (Ann Arbor, MI) 1985.

Bernstein, Roberta, Jasper Johns: Numbers, Cleveland Museum of Art (Cleveland, OH), 2003.

Castleman, Riva, Jasper Johns: A Print Retrospective (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Modern Art/Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1986.

Contemporary Artists, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Crichton, Michael, Jasper Johns, revised edition, Harry M. Abrams (New York, NY), 1994.

Field, Richard S., Jasper Johns: Prints, 1960-1970 (exhibition catalogue), Philadelphia Museum of Art (Philadelphia, PA), 1970.

Francis, Richard, Jasper Johns, Abbeville Press (New York, NY), 1984.

Garrels, Gary, Jasper Johns: New Paintings and Works on Paper, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (San Francisco, CA), 1999.

International Dictionary of Art and Artists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1990.

Jasper Johns (exhibition catalogue), Jewish Museum (New York, NY), 1964.

Jasper Johns: Drawings (exhibition catalogue), Arts Council of Great Britain (London, England), 1974.

Jasper Johns: 19 avril-4 juin, 1978 (exhibition catalogue), Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris, France), 1978.

Jasper Johns: 35 Years [with] Leo Castelli (exhibition catalogue), edited by Susan Brundage, Leo Castelli Gallery/Harry N. Abrams (New York, NY), 1993.

Johnston, Jill, Jasper Johns: Privileged Information, Thames and Hudson (New York, NY), 1996.

Kozloff, Max, Jasper Johns, Harry N. Abrams (New York, NY), 1972.

Orton, Fred, Figuring Jasper Johns, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1994.

Rothfuss, Joan, editor, Past Things and Present: Jasper Johns since 1983, Walker Art Center, 2003.

Seventeen Monotypes/Jasper Johns (exhibition catalogue), text by Judith Goldman, ULAE (West Islip, NY), 1982.

Shapiro, David, Jasper Johns Drawings, 1954-1984, Harry N. Abrams (New York, NY), 1984.

Steinberg, Leo, Jasper Johns, G. Wittenborn (New York, NY), 1963.

Varnedoe, Kirk, Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY), 2003.


America's Intelligence Wire, February 5, 2004, Jessica Witkin, "U. Southern California: Jasper Johns Paints Art with 'Numbers'."

Art Business News, August, 2004, "Exhibit Explores Pop Art's Cultural Impact," p. 58.

Artforum International, March, 1994, Wayne Kostenbaum, "Jasper Johns: 'In Memory of My Feelings'—Frank O'Hara, 1961," p. 74; March, 1996, Richard Shiff, "Jasper Johns' 'Alley Oop,' 1958," p. 88; September, 1996, Rosalind E. Krauss and Christopher Knight, "Split Decision," p. 78; September, 2003, Katy Siegel, "Past Things and Present: Jasper Johns since 1983," p. 81.

Art in America, May, 1995, Raphael Rubinstein, "Full Circle," p. 108; April, 1997, Roni Feinstein, "Jasper Johns: The Examined Life," p. 78, David Sylvester, "Shots at a Moving Target," p. 90; October, 2004, Joe Fyfe, "Jasper Johns at the Cleveland Museum of Art," p. 162.

Entertainment Weekly, January 15, 1993, Hilton Kramer, "Jasper Johns: Ideas in Print," p. 58.

Financial Times, August 11, 2004, Lynn Macritchie, "A Painter of Unconscious Insight," p. 13.

Interiors, April, 1999, Andrea Truppin, "Numbers Crunching," p. 23.

Lancet, December 18, 1999, John McConnell, "Jasper John's Strings," p. 2177.

Modernism Magazine, winter, 2003, David Rago, "Jasper Johns: Numbers," p. 20.

Nation, April 27, 1985, Arthur C. Danto, "The 1985 Biennial Exhibition," p. 501; January 27, 1997, Arthur C. Danto, "Jasper Johns," p. 32.

New Republic, May 18, 1987, Mark Stevens, "Jasper Johns," p. 26; January 9, 1989, Mark Stevens, "Pessimist at Play," p. 25; July 30, 1990, Mark Stevens, "The Seducer of Certainty," p. 28; December 2, 1996, Jed Perl, "Flag Burning," p. 42.

New Statesman, July 5, 1996, Michael Bywater, "Wham Bam Thank You Ma'am!," p. 38.

Newsweek, October 28, 1996, Peter Plagens, "Rally round the Flag, Boys," p. 72.

New York Times, June 19, 1988, Deborah Solomon, "The Unflagging Artistry of Jasper Johns," p. 20.

Smithsonian, June, 1990, Helen Dudar, "Enigmatic, Distant, Jasper Johns Is at the Top of His Form," p. 56.

Time, July 25, 1988, Robert Hughes, "The Venice Biennale Bounces Back," p. 84; September 9, 1996, "Jasper Johns' Grand Old Retrospective," p. 64; November 11, 1996, Robert Hughes, "Behind the Sacred Aura," p. 76.

Time International, April 2, 2001, "Art Goes Pop," p. 74.

World and I, March, 1997, Eric Gibson, "The Inflation of Jasper Johns," p. 96.

online, (November 19, 2004), "Jasper Johns."

Museum of Modern Art, (November 19, 2004), "Jasper Johns: A Retrospective."*

Jasper Johns

views updated Jun 08 2018

Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns (born 1930), American painter and sculptor, helped break the hold of abstract expressionism on modern American art and cleared the way for pop art. Versatile in several different artistic fields, he has given the world sculptures, lithographs, and prints, as well as paintings.

Jasper Johns was born in Augusta, Georgia, in the middle of the Great Depression, to Jean Riley Johns and her husband, Jasper, Sr. He was a year old when his mother left his alcoholic father. Shortly afterwards, he had yet another upset when his mother found herself unable to support him and left him with her father in Allendale, South Carolina. He was nine years old when he lost his grandfather, and thereafter, he was shuttled back and forth between his mother and various relatives on his father's side.

In Search of Focus

After graduating from high school in 1946, Johns drifted without noticeable focus for some time. He spent a desultory three semesters at the University of South Carolina, then moved on to New York, where he entered a commercial art school in 1949. Here he stayed until 1951, dropping out when told that his work did not merit a scholarship for which he had applied, but that it would nevertheless be granted to him on grounds of need. Completely on his own, he worked first as a messenger, then as a shipping clerk, and finally, after entering college for just one day, he got a job as a clerk in the Marlboro Bookstore.

In 1954, he was introduced to Robert Rauchenberg, an artist five years older than he was, and the two of them soon became firm friends. Both set up studios in the same building, and both supported themselves by doing collages, drawings and paintings for window displays used by luxury stores such as Tiffany and Bonwit Teller.

A Developing Artist

For the first time in his life, Johns was supporting himself with his art. This change from part-time painting and part-time clerking represented a profound change in the way he viewed his own profession and his own future. "Before, whenever anybody asked me what I did, I said I was going to become an artist," he told Michael Crichton, the author of his biography. "Finally, I decided that I could be going to become an artist forever, all my life. I decided to stop becoming and to be an artist." He was, in essence, reinventing himself, and as always when drastic measures are undertaken, there was both good and bad in his approach. One of the first things he did was to rip up and destroy every piece of his early work.. Fortunately, four paintings survived this action to give art-lovers an idea of his early creative years.

He began to develop a definite discipline and a method all his own. Intensely interested in experimentation, he learned to work with "encaustic" a method which combines pigments and hot wax before they are applied to the surface of a painting. Plaster casts of different types also began to appear on various paintings. The works most commonly associated with this period were his paintings of flags and of targets. The subjects he chose were oftentimes objects which are often seen, but are usually too commonplace to be closely noticed. Then, he proceeded to give them individuality by adding encaustic textures and other elements which both enhanced and lessened their familiarity at the same time.

In 1955, his painting Green Target was exhibited in the Jewish Museum as a part of the Artists of the New York School: Second Generation show. But this was not the only place Johns' paintings were to be seen. Along with other artists supplying pictures and drawings for Bonwit Teller's displays, he was invited to show two of his flag paintings in their windows. Johns had the first of many one-man shows in 1958. Paintings of flags, numbers and targets abounded, and all were sold, three of them to New York's Museum of Modern Art.

The year 1958 was noteworthy also for his first sculptures, called, Flashlight and Lightbulb I. But perhaps one of the year's most enduring achievements was a painting called Three Flags, which would be sold to the Whitney Museum in 1980 for the sum of $1 million.

Dada in Development

In 1959 Johns met the artist Marcel Duchamp for the first time. Duchamp, forty seven years Johns' senior, had long been one of the art world's most influential figures. He was a proponent of the school known as Dada, which, before dying out in 1923, had sought to destroy preconceived notions of what was or was not artistically acceptable. Duchamp himself had contributed to the movement, largely by depicting what he called "ready-mades," (utilitarian articles such as snow shovels and bottle racks) signing the resulting pictures, and presenting the result as objects of art rather than objects made for everyday use.

This was an idea that Johns embraced and modified. Like Duchamp he embellished his paintings with "devices," but shied away from Duchamp's spontaneity by making complex arrangements of the objects he used. His Painted Bronze consisting of a Savarin coffee can filled with paint brushes, is a perfect example of his careful arrangement.

By the middle of the 1970s, these ideas were joined by a technique called crosshatching. Johns was inspired to try this method after an automobile trip to the Hamptons, during which he saw a car covered with marks flash past in the opposite direction. Adapting it to his own purposes, he began to use it to convey a sense of something swiftly glimpsed, then turned into art.

By this time, Jasper Johns was well-known, and was expanding his interests to embrace new fields.

In 1967, for instance, he became artistic advisor to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, for which he designed sets, costumes, and occasionally, posters. Cunning-ham's ballet Second Hand, produced in 1980, was just one work bearing the mark of Johns' creativity. Characteristically, he crystallized his experiences on canvas, with a picture called Dancers on a Plane, which he completed in 1980.

Another new direction was collaboration in the field of book illustration. In 1973 he started to create 33 etchings for a collection of short stories called Foirades/Fizzles, written by Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett. Unfortunately, as Johns biographer Richard Francis remarks, though the collection appeared on schedule in 1976 the two men could not compromise on interpretation. Despite their commonly held bleak view of life, the resulting work leaned more towards two parallel works, rather than one seamless one created by two artists working in unison.

The Legendary Jasper Johns

Over the years, the stylistic changes showing Jasper Johns' development as an artist have been seen by the public in so many exhibitions that they have been listed on a CD-ROM. Some of these have been retrospectives, in which the galleries responsible have tried to obtain works from each of his periods, so that earlier and later works can be compared and contrasted. In October 1996, the Museum of Modern Art held a Jasper Johns retrospective that stirred great interest in the art world. Occupying two floors of the museum, the exhibition featured 225 works arranged chronologically.

Johns rarely granted interviews. One friend, who remained anonymous, told the magazine Vanity Fair, " … he's terrified he might let slip something personal." This is why Johns was so incensed at the appearance of Jill Johnston's 1996 biography, Privileged Information. Currently a former friend who has known Johns for some 30 years, Johnston amazed Johns with her interpretation of some of his paintings, which she saw as coded references to his lonely childhood lurking behind the locked gate of his reticence. Because he believed her interpretations of his works to be inaccurate, as well as presumptuous, he forbade publisher Thames & Hudson to reproduce any of his paintings for the book. As always, his motto remained "privacy above all."

Further Reading

Max Kozloff, Jasper Johns (1968), is the largest and most recent monograph on the art of Johns; the catalog of the 1964 Jewish Museum exhibition has a fine essay by Alan Solomon. Leo Steinberg, Jasper Johns (1963), is a brief study; Mario Amaya, Pop Art … and After (1966), is recommended for general background.

Additional Sources

Crichton, Michael, Jasper Johns, Harry N. Abrams, 1977.

Francis, Richard, Johns Abbeville Modern Masters, 1983.

Johnston, Jill, Jasper Johns: Privileged Information.

Art in America, April, 1997.

Vanity Fair, September, 1996. □

Johns, Jasper

views updated May 23 2018

JOHNS, Jasper

(b. 15 May 1930 in Augusta, Georgia), painter and sculptor who presented the first viable challenge to the authority of abstract expressionist painting and to formalist criticism in American art after World War II.

Johns was the only child of William Jasper Johns, a farmer who had practiced law, and Jean Riley, and was raised in Allendale, South Carolina, near the Georgia border. His early artistic training came from occasional art classes in high school and from three semesters at the University of South Carolina, in Columbia. In 1948, a year after dropping out of the university, Johns moved to New York City. There he took courses at Parsons School of Design and viewed work by Picasso, Pollock, Cézanne, Munch, and others who would provide inspiration and motifs throughout his career. In 1951 he was drafted and stationed in Sendai, Japan, where he achieved the rank of private first class. Honorably discharged two years later, Johns returned to Manhattan, burned all his existing work, and decided that he was now an artist.

Johns received his first one-person show in January 1958 at the gallery of young Hungarian émigré Leo Castelli. Castelli remained Johns's representative until the dealer's death in 1999. The debut was a critical and financial success. Target with Four Faces (1955) appeared on the cover of Art News, and three paintings sold to the Museum of Modern Art. The show introduced Johns's controlled technique and what would become his signature motifs: flags, numbers, targets, and letters. His work during the early sixties was singled out by critics, including formalist Clement Greenberg and minimalist Donald Judd, for its curious combination of abstract handling and representational content. As critic Robert Rosenblum noted, Johns made "loved, handmade transcriptions of unloved, machine-made images." These quiet and meticulously painted objects posed the first significant challenge to the emotional catharsis and psychological exploration of abstract expressionism. Johns produced self-conscious analyses of the means of picture making that would be elaborated on for the rest of the century.

Johns's challenge to the 1950s New York School was fundamentally one of inversion. He confused abstract means and representational ends and avoided the surrealist influences of the abstract expressionists to address the dadaist projects of Marcel Duchamp. In works like Painted Bronze (Ale Cans, 1960), Johns turned the tables on Duchamp's ready-mades (ordinary objects elevated to the status of art through the artist's declarations). Reintroducing technique to Duchamp's antiaesthetic, Johns presented ready-made subjects, "things the mind already knows," as he described them, crafted through laboriously handmade processes. In works that replicated everything from styles of painting to beer cans and paintbrushes, Johns created art that, like the music and dance of his close colleagues John Cage and Merce Cunningham, did not appear inventive in conventional terms. The search for alternative indications of artistry provides a link from Johns's work to the projects of Pop, minimalism, and Conceptual Art of the 1960s. Even identity-oriented art of the 1970s and 1980s returned to the stylistic analyses carried out by Johns in the 1960s.

Though Johns's work asserted the right to address content, his messages came veiled in their own coded structures. Like the work of many of his peers, from Robert Rauschenberg to Frank Stella, Johns's art proclaimed the importance of content while taking pains to obfuscate its specific meaning. Paintings like In Memory of My Feelings—Frank O'Hara (1961), or Periscope (Hart Crane) (1963), refer through their titles to love poems and, like the flags, suggest serious content without explaining it. The interpretative strategies Johns's work has inspired have included formal examinations of his motifs, attempts at cracking his codes, and queries into the meaning of coding itself. These studies have made Johns relevant to discussions of communicative strategies that rely on coded behavior, of which modern art is but one.

The early sixties were tumultuous for Johns. He saw his career and influence rise, found and visited audiences from New York to Tokyo, moved his studio from cosmopolitan Manhattan to the isolated Edisto Beach, South Carolina, and ended an intense romantic and professional relationship with Rauschenberg. During the latter part of the decade Johns ruminated over his early work, expanding compositions, repositioning elements, and changing media. With the encouragement of Tatyana Grosman at Universal Limited Art Editions, a small publishing company, he become one of the premier artists working in print media in the second half of the century. His editions include the most developed explorations into lithography to date, as well as screen prints, etchings, aquatints, and even lead reliefs. Print technology appeared in his works on canvas as well, further developing his interest in mixing media.

Since the 1960s Johns has become one of the most influential American artists of the century, arguably second only to Jackson Pollock. His methodical combination of expression and reserve in both content and form has been a touchstone for a variety of artists and critics. His strategy of combining intellectual and highly abstract stylistic devices with emotionally loaded objects has been a mainstay in his art, from the target or poetry paintings of the 1960s to fragmentary citations of Picasso, Mathias Grünewald, and the artist's own home and studio in the 1980s and 1990s. Since his debut in the 1960s, when the existence of universal certainties was being disputed, Johns has created a workable model for addressing both form and content in art. An inspiration to those of his own generation sorting out the legacy of abstract expressionism, Johns has been no less important to artists struggling to prioritize analysis and doubt over catharsis and purity.

Biographies of Johns include Leo Steinberg, Jasper Johns (1963); Alan R. Solomon, Jasper Johns (1964); Richard Francis, Jasper Johns (1984); Michael Crichton, Jasper Johns (1994); and Kirk Varnedoe, Jasper Johns (1996). Discussions and illustrations of Johns's work are in Roberta Bernstein, Jasper Johns Paintings and Sculpture 1954-1974 (1985); Nan Rosenthal and Ruth E. Fine, The Drawings of Jasper Johns: 1954–1984 (1990); Fred Orton, Figuring Jasper Johns (1994); and Gary Garrels, Jasper Johns: New Paintings and Works on Paper (1999). Jasper Johns: Writings Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, Kirk Varnedoe, ed., (1996) contains the same.

Peter R. Kalb

Johns, Jasper

views updated May 11 2018

JOHNS, Jasper

JOHNS, Jasper (b. 15 May 1930), artist.

The enigmatic work of Jasper Johns, perhaps America's most respected living artist, invites many interpretations. No line of analysis, however, has proven more controversial than that linking his fascination with masking and codes to his homosexuality. Johns's career offers a case study in debates over the relationship between homosexuality and art, including the potential of minority sexual identity to create community and prompt creative insight, as well as the power of homophobia to limit the recognition and development of these accomplishments.

Born and raised in South Carolina, Johns moved to New York City, planning to study art and poetry. After two years in the Army, he returned to New York and joined the avant-garde circle around the composer John Cage and Cage's lover, the choreographer Merce Cunningham. In 1953, Johns met an artist in this group, Robert Rauschenberg, with whom he would be intimately—though secretly—partnered until 1961. Five years older than Johns, Rauschenberg had already gained art-world attention for work that challenged Abstract Expressionism's emphasis on expressive mark making. Quickly extrapolating from Rauschenberg's ideas, Johns in the "Flag" and "Target" series mounted a powerful critique of Abstract Expressionism's claims to have developed an American form of individualistic self-expression. Flags and targets are clearly learned symbols, not personally imagined abstract marks. Their connotations—the American-ness of the American flag, the emotions of aggression and vulnerability associated with the target—reveal the formulaic quality of the values Abstract Expressionism claimed as original inventions.

Johns's flag and target paintings rocketed him to fame. Throughout his career, however, Johns lashed out at critics who read their own personal meanings into his work. At the same time, his art returned repeatedly to codes and hidden meanings. One controversial analysis of this dynamic is that Johns's influential art expresses that the price of fame for gay men of his generation is to accept the condition of keeping their sexuality secret.

Kenneth Silver's and Jonathan Katz's studies of Johns's early work relate both his subject matter and his techniques to his sexual identity. Johns's targets, especially as they were often combined with plaster casts of body parts in little closet-like boxes, are described by Silver as a "portrait of a homosexual man of the postwar period …The besieged gay body—and gay psyche—is fragmented and sorted into compartments, each one capable of being alternately closeted or exposed."

Johns's paintings invoking the gay poets Frank O'Hara and Hart Crane allude even more clearly to the intertwined history of art and homosexuality. Johns's In Memory of My Feelings—Frank O'Hara, which includes its full title stenciled across the bottom of the image, was painted in 1961, immediately after his break-up with Rauschenberg. O'Hara was among the most openly gay men in the New York art world, a poet, art critic, and curator who championed Johns's career. Johns's title quotes the title of an O'Hara poem, and this painting also includes the words "DEAD MAN" almost obscured by paint. Jill Johnston's analysis concludes, "It was O'Hara's human nature that Johns wanted, the fearless homosexual poet … open to Walt Whitman and Hart Crane before him." Johnston's analysis extends to Johns's later work, which juxtaposes collaged newspaper articles about the AIDS crisis with quotations from his earlier works (quotations that, given the nature of his work, themselves quote other kinds of imagery, most prominently a sixteenth-century altarpiece for the victims and caregivers of an earlier plague).

Interpretations of Johns's work in relation to homosexuality rely, however, less on subject matter than on how this imagery is presented. Silver describes Johns's early use of a thick wax encaustic embedded with shreds of newspaper as a way to "mummify" Abstract Expressionist "marks of vitality, so that we sense ourselves distanced from both the work as a record of activity and from the artist whose activity is recorded." The complex layering of Johns's later works has, likewise, been seen as a strategy of masking or veiling, not to obscure the secret of homosexuality, but to perform the habits of dissembling and coding adopted by homosexuals in the public eye. Jonathan Weinberg, while skirting the issue of Johns's homosexuality, has analyzed the dynamics of anal and autoeroticism in his work.

Johns' resistance to such interpretations—notably his refusal to allow reproductions of his art to be printed in Johnston's book—does not undermine their validity. On the contrary, as Johnston's accounts of her conversations with the artist show, his verbal strategies of silence, distraction, and intimidation echo the visual effects of his work, consciously or unconsciously confirming her portrait of a man for whom sexual identity is experienced as secret and expressed as code.


Harrison, Charles and Fred Orton. "Jasper Johns: 'Meaning What you See.'" Art History 7, no. 1 (March 1984): 76–99.

Johnston, Jill. Jasper Johns: Privileged Information. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Katz, Jonathan. "The Art of Code: Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg." In Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership . Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds. London: Thames and Hudson, 1993.

Katz, Jonathan. "Dismembership: Jasper Johns and the Body Politic."In Performing the Body/Performing the Text. Amelia Jones and Andrew Stephenson, eds. London: Routledge, 1999.

Silver, Kenneth E. "Modes of Disclosure: The Construction of Gay Identity and the Rise of Pop Art." In Hand-Painted Pop . Russell Ferguson, ed. Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1992.

Weinberg, Jonathan. "It's in the Can: Jasper Johns and the Anal Society." Genders 1 (Spring 1988): 40–57.

Christopher Reed

see alsoart history; cage, john; crane, hart; cunningham, merce; rauschenberg; robert; visual art.

Johns, Jasper

views updated Jun 11 2018

Johns, Jasper (1930– ) US painter, sculptor, and printmaker. Johns and Robert Rauschenberg led the movement away from abstract expressionism towards pop art and minimal art. Johns' canvases feature banal, everyday images, such as Three Flags (1958) and Target With Four Faces (1955).