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 on Jasper Johns

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 Biography 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.