From Familiar Objects and Icons to the Introspective and Inscrutable
Jasper Johns (1930–) is one of the most challenging, influential and original artists of his generation. This spring, the Broad Museum in Los Angeles gathers together works from all the phases of his career for the major exhibition “Something Resembling Truth.” It provides a unique opportunity to consider the entire range of the artist’s achievements, from his Pop-era icons of targets and flags to his later, more introspective autobiographical paintings.
Less Feeling, Please
Johns began his career with a resounding splash when his 1958 New York debut at the Leo Castelli Gallery catapulted him to the fore of the American art scene. The show sold out, with several of the paintings going to the Museum of Modern Art.
The following year Time magazine would hail him as “the brand-new darling of the art world’s bright, brittle avant-garde.” Exhibiting in a city where Abstract Expressionism held sway, Johns turned his back on the romantic, gestural approach of painters such as Motherwell and de Kooning, with its claims of deep meaning and embrace of raw emotions.
“I don’t want my work to be an exposure of my feelings,” said Johns. Instead, he made paintings from the most mundane and banal of motifs — targets, flags and numbers — the commonplace signage and workaday symbols of modern life.
Rather than delve into the subconscious or trade in obscure references, he painted subjects that were, as he put it, “things the mind already knows.” The paintings became simply objects rather than conduits for meaning or windows into the soul of the artist.
About the Flags
Painting a flag, the painting itself became a flag, as well as being a painting about a flag. As subject and object melted into one, the viewer was invited to look with reflection and delectation on an image that would usually not command that kind of attention.
Yet on the fashionable, pristine white walls of Castelli’s gallery, Johns’ pictures were commanding and visually splendid, enriched with luxuriant surfaces of encaustic and endowed with ravishing color. The banal, it seemed, could also become beguiling, sensually satisfying and eminently desirable.
Moreover, the paintings seemed to ask some very interesting questions about the nature of art. What is the relationship between an artwork and its subject? Does a work of art have to mean anything at all?
Answers to some of these questions began to emerge from Johns’ practice of exploring multiple iterations of his images. “Take an image/Do something to it/Do something else to it,” he wrote in his sketchbook.
It was to be a program of unguided and perhaps capricious variations, an exploration that would simply see what happened when Johns played with different aspects of an image. Numbers could be made large or small; they could be colored or monochrome; they could be superimposed on one another or laid out in rows.
Similarly, a flag could be rendered in any set of colors, on any scale. Changes in these basic parameters did indeed bring about shifts in the look, feel and import of the images.
Asked in 1969 to contribute to the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, Johns made a flag image painted in complementary colors. Red, white and blue became green, black and orange, and the image took on an alarming and alienated appearance.
The How of Jasper Johns
How was it possible for such a young artist to come up with such radical and attractive work, to make paintings that would immediately shift the entire ground of the art world? Like most successes, it didn’t quite happen overnight, although in this case the beginnings were far from auspicious.
Born to a Southern farmer, Johns was shuffled among various family members after his parents divorced, living for several years with an aunt in a rural setting that lacked both electricity and phone service. Fond of drawing as a boy, he longed to become an artist but had difficulty finding training.
In 1951, after a few semesters at the University of South Carolina, he came to New York, where he enrolled at Parsons School of Design, only to drop out a few months later to support himself as a messenger and shipping clerk. He was drafted into the army, in which he served for two years, and in 1953 he was discharged and again traveled to New York.
This time he enrolled at Hunter College, only to leave after one day and take a job on the night shift of the enormous Marboro bookstore. During this period, Johns began to meet artists in and around the circle of John Cage and Merce Cunningham.
Most significantly, he began his friendship with Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), an artist several years his senior, who would become his mentor and partner for the next several years. Rauschenberg was supporting himself with a business in freelance window dressing, counting among his clients Bonwit Teller, the department store.
Johns left his job to help Rauschenberg, and over the next several years the two artists worked closely together, both on window dressing and art making. It’s tempting to speculate that the responsibilities of a window dresser — presenting tasteful, entertaining and visually satisfying spectacles for a wide public — developed in Johns a sensibility that would transfer happily to his fine art.
Inspired by a Dream
Johns started to make his flag paintings, which were initially inspired, he says, by a dream. He began his first painting in enamel but soon changed to encaustic, building richly textured surfaces.
One of the early appearances of these pictures was in the window of Bonwit Teller in 1957. Others appeared in group shows, but they garnered little attention until the art dealer Leo Castelli visited Johns’ loft and instantly offered him an exhibition.
Castelli not only recognized an important and original artist but also had the talent and energy as a promoter to launch his career. Exhibitions followed in Paris and Japan, collectors swooned, and prices went up.
Such success doesn’t come without its detractors, and the Abstract Expressionist painters were hardly pleased to share the limelight. One day Johns heard that de Kooning had complained of Castelli, saying, “That son-of-a-bitch — you could give him two beer cans and he could sell them.”
Johns was intrigued. “What a sculpture, two beer cans,” he recalled thinking. “It seemed to me to fit in perfectly with what I was doing, so I did them — and Leo sold them.”
A Part of Pop
Broadly speaking Jasper Johns’ early work is seen as part of the Pop Art movement, a loose grouping that included Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Wayne Thiebaud, all of whom incorporated imagery from popular culture into their fine art.
Johns’ work is distinguished, however, by its formal insistence on process and its austere irony, qualities that were to be influential on the following movements of Minimalism and Conceptual Art. Johns maintained his approach through the early 1960s, working with banal and widely recognizable motifs — including letters of the alphabet and maps of the U.S. — in a variety of scales and colors.
Gradually, though, he broadened his exploration, producing a number of works that incorporated the objects that had made the strokes in the painting. For instance, screwed to the surface of Fools House is a broom that had been used to make a sweeping arc through the painting.
In this artwork we once again have what appears to be a deliberately banal act of image making, in which the artist simply provides a mechanical means for making a motif. It’s very much in line with the idea of the artist as a supervisor or overseer of the creative act rather than some sort of soul-baring genius.
In this painting the broom is also labeled in writing, as are a cup hanging from the bottom of the painting and a small stretcher and a towel glued to the surface. Everything, the painting insists, is just what it is and no more.
Gradually, Johns began to incorporate images and objects in his paintings that appear to operate in more traditional ways, as symbols that point to more personal and complex meanings. In part, this may reflect the artist’s emotional difficulties after his relationship with Rauschenberg was severed in 1961.
More Personal Forays
As time went by Johns’ work began to venture into more personal and less accessible territory. By the 1970s, he began to use ostensibly abstract imagery that nevertheless carries with it all manner of reference. In particular, a crosshatch pattern appears in many paintings, such as Untitled, from 1975.
Although its original inspiration is unknown, the artist came across a similar motif in a painting by Edvard Munch. The motif feels abstract, but the titles of some of the works in which Johns employs the crosshatching indicate that the paintings concern mortality, a theme that recurs continually in his work from recent decades.
Johns has also quoted other artists in his work, ranging from Grünewald and Leonardo to Picasso and Duchamp. Many of Johns’ late works present themselves as obscure puzzles, and the artist himself has generally withheld comment on the import of his pictures, leaving critics and viewers to delve as they may.
In Summer, for instance, the right side of the painting is stacked with motifs from Johns’ earlier work, including the hatching pattern, various flags and the Mona Lisa. On the left side of the painting the blank gray shape of the artist’s shadow takes on the poignancy of a body outline at a murder scene. The painting appears to be a reflection on the relative value of the artist’s life and his art, but any conclusions remain obscure.
“It seems to me,” the artist said in 1988, “one can never make a comprehensive statement. One just continues to do things — this, that and the other — and then it stops.”
Whatever his intimations of mortality in the 1980s, Jasper Johns has been granted a long life and has continued his autobiographical delving. In Untitled, from 1992–94, he presents a large canvas in a very somber palette, featuring blueprints of his grandfather’s house, where he lived briefly as a child.
The composition and its fragmented imagery defy easy interpretation, and in the absence of a definitive comment from the artist, we can only surmise that the work is some sort of meditation on his childhood.
In the course of a long career, we seem to have moved all the way from paintings of “things the mind already knows” to “things only the artist knows.” Intriguingly, the various formal experiments and variations of the early work built a painterly language that the artist deploys for more expressive ends in his late work.
Far from the irony of the early work, there is an undeniable emotional engagement in his late painting, a use of the expressive power of color and tone and the achievement of an elegiac atmosphere that adroitly avoids sentimentality.
None of this would have been possible without his early breakthroughs and formal experiments. If the overall body of work has shifted ground, it simply confirms that we are witness to a broad and serious creative endeavor. “One hopes for something resembling truth,” said the artist in 2008, “some sense of life, even of grace, to flicker, at least, in the work.”
About the Exhibition
“Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth” is on view at the Broad, in Los Angeles, through May 13. For more information, visit the museum’s website. For more information about the accompanying catalog, visit Art Book, and search for “Jasper Johns.”
Article by John A. Parks. A version of this story appeared in Artists Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.