- Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, InterviewsOur PickBy Christel Hollevoet, Robert Frank, Jasper Johns, and Kirk Varnedoe
Important Art by Jasper Johns
Johns's first major work broke from the Abstract Expressionist precedent of non-objective painting with his representation of a recognizable everyday object - the American flag. Additionally, instead of using oil paint applied to the canvas with a brush, Johns built the flag from a dynamic surface made up of shreds of newspaper dipped in encaustic, allowing snippets of text to remain visible through the wax. As the molten, pigmented wax cooled, it fixed the scraps of newspaper in visually distinct marks that evoked the gestural brushwork of much of Abstract Expressionism. The seemingly frozen drips and gestures embodied Johns's interest in semiotics, or the study of signs and symbols. In effect, Johns "quoted" the expressionistic brushstroke of the Action Painters, turning it into a symbol for artistic expression rather than a direct mode of expression. This experiment began his career-long investigation into "how we see and why we see the way we do."
The symbol of the American flag, to this day, carries a host of connotations and meanings that shift from individual to individual, making it the ideal subject for Johns's initial foray into visually exploring the "things the mind already knows." He intentionally blurred the lines between high art and everyday life with his choice of seemingly mundane subject matter. Johns painted Flag in the context of the McCarthy witch-hunts in Cold War America. Then and now, some viewers will read national pride or freedom in the image, while others only see imperialism and oppression. Johns was one of the first artists to present viewers with the dichotomies embedded in the national symbol. Johns referred to his paintings as "facts" and did not provide predetermined interpretations of his work; when critics asked Johns if the work was a painted flag, or a flag painting, he said it was both.
In this work, Johns effectively merged painting and sculpture while wittily engaging the viewer with "things which are seen and not looked at." As in Flag, Johns relied on newspaper and fabric dipped in encaustic to build the textured surface of the painting. Over the course of four months, he also made plaster casts of the lower half of a model's face and ultimately placed them in a hinged, wood box affixed to the top of the canvas. By incorporating the sculptural elements in the same space as the painting, Johns emphasized the three-dimensional objecthood of the painting, just as Robert Rauschenberg did in his combine paintings of the late 1950s. Indeed, the hinged nature of the box allows for the viewer to open and close the box, to interact with the painting in a more physical way than looking, although such interaction is not allowed by the museum. This merging of mediums was a pointed response to the recent progression of abstract painting that emphasized opticality and the flatness of the picture plane championed by art critics like Clement Greenberg .
Beyond the material surface of the work, the concentric circles of the target are at once a painting of a target and a target itself, for when one places a target of concentric circles on anything, that thing becomes a target. The target implies the acts of seeing and taking aim, and in this case, not just at the target itself but also the anonymous faces above it. Importantly, though, Johns excluded the model's eyes from the plaster casts, and thus thwarted any exchange of gazes between the viewer and the faces in the work. This forced the viewer to examine the interactions between the painted target and the plaster faces. Viewed through the lens of the Cold War era, the seemingly benign images can imply the targeting of the anonymous masses by global political powers as well as by corporate advertising and the mass media.
In False Start, Johns relied on language to draw viewers into a dialogue with the painting. Throughout the gestural patches of red, yellow, blue, orange, white, and pink, one sees the words "red," "orange," "blue," and "yellow" stenciled in various orientations across the surface of the canvas. The change of subject matter - from the nonverbal signs of targets and flags to language itself - moved Johns further into an investigation of semiotics and how we interpret and read signs and symbols. As he noted, "The flags and targets have colors positioned in a predetermined way. I wanted to find a way to apply color so that the color would be determined by some other method." By focusing on colors and the words that represent them, Johns abstracted each, removing the traditional associations that accompanied them. Rather than hand-painting each letter, Johns used a store-bought stencil - a readymade method by which he could create an image without revealing the trace of the artist's hand. He stenciled the words that denote colors on top and underneath the various layers of paint as he worked. Johns transformed the words into objects by rendering most of them in colors unrelated to the one they verbally represent; for instance, "RED" appears painted in bright orange in the center of the canvas atop a patch of yellow. Johns revealed the dissonance between the words and the colors, shifting their function from designation to a mere assembly of symbols, ripe for reconsideration.
Influenced by John Cage's interest in the role of chance in the creative process, Johns used the gestural technique of applying small sections of paint to the canvas according to arbitrary arm movements rather than any preconceived placement for each individual brushstroke, a technique he called "brushmarking." His use of brushmarking resulted in explosive bursts of color, as if in an erupting fireworks display, that both highlight and obscure the uncannily hued words scattered across the canvas, creating a semiotic tension. By incorporating language into his visual repertoire, Johns expanded his dialogue with viewers to encompass the function of both visual and verbal symbols. Such explorations stand as clear precursors to Conceptual Art movement's examination of words and their meanings in the late 1960s.