Progression of Art
This, Johns' first major work, broke from the Abstract Expressionist precedent of non-objective painting with his representation of a recognizable everyday object - the American flag. Johns built the flag from a dynamic surface made up of shreds of newspaper dipped in encaustic - with snippets of text still visible through the wax - rather than oil paint applied to the canvas with a brush. As the molten, pigmented wax cooled, it fixed the scraps of newspaper in visually distinct marks that evoked the gestural brushwork of the Abstract Expressionists of the previous decade. The frozen encaustic embodied Johns' interest in semiotics by quoting the "brushstroke" of the action painters as a symbol for artistic expression, rather than a direct mode of expression, as part of 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' 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 or oppression. Johns was one of the first artists to present viewers with the dichotomies embedded in the American flag. 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. As with other Neo-Dada works, the meaning of the artwork is determined by the viewer, not the artist.
Encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric mounted on plywood, three panels - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Target with Four Faces
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 upon newspaper and fabric dipped in encaustic to build the intricately textured surface of the painting. However, he also made plaster casts of only the lower half of a female model's face over four successive months, and fixed these out of order in a hinged, wooden box that he attached to the top of the canvas. By incorporating the sculptural elements in the same space as the painting, Johns emphasized the "objecthood" of the painting, as Rauschenberg did in his "combine paintings" of the late 1950s. This merging of mediums reinforced the three-dimensional object-ness of the paintings and was the Neo-Dada response to the recent progression of abstraction away from representation to an ever more reduced imagery that merely reiterated the surface of the canvas.
Beyond the material surface of the work, the concentric circles of the target imply the acts of seeing and taking aim. However, Johns excluded the model's eyes from the plaster faces, 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. Conversely, contemporary viewers might read the anonymity of the Internet in the work. Every individual's interpretation is shaped by his or her own history and knowledge. As part of his continued exploration of how people see the world around them, Johns intentionally chose the vague symbols of the target and a nondescript human face to solicit multiple, varied readings of this elusive work that straddles two historically distinct mediums.
Encaustic on newspaper and cloth over canvas surmounted by four tinted-plaster faces in wood box with hinged front - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
For this piece, Johns eschewed the nonverbal symbols of his earlier works, instead relying upon the building blocks of language to draw viewers into a dialogue with the painting. The change of subject matter was occasioned by Johns' desire to move beyond his earlier targets and flags. 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-paint 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 in colors unrelated to those which they verbally represented - "RED" appears painted in bright orange in the center of the canvas. Johns revealed the dissonance between the words and the colors, shifting their function from designation to a mere assembly of symbols, ripe for reconsideration.
Although he shifted media from encaustic to oil, Johns maintained his dialogue with the Abstract Expressionists through a technique he called "brushmarking." Influenced by John Cage's interest in the role of chance, Johns used the gestural technique of applying small sections of paint to the canvas purely according to arbitrary arm movements rather than any preconceived placement for each individual brushstroke. His use of brushmarking resulted in explosive bursts of color, as if in an erupting fireworks display, that highlight or obscure the uncannily hued words scattered across the canvas. The tension between the dynamic colors and the words dispersed among them creates the space for viewers to engage with what they see on a semiotic level. By incorporating language into his visual repertoire, Johns expanded his dialogue with viewers to encompass the function of visual and verbal symbols. His exploration of language stands as a clear precursor to Conceptual art's examination of words and their meanings in the late 1960s.
Oil on canvas - Private collection-Anne and Kenneth Griffin
Painted Bronze (ale cans)
In this bronze sculpture, Johns intentionally blurs the line between the actual object and its artistic recreation, wherein the handcrafted appearance of the Ballantine Ale cans is only apparent after close inspection. He fashioned the sculpture in response to Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning's boast about art dealer Leo Castelli, "you could give [him] two beer cans and he could sell them." Johns accepted the challenge implicit in De Kooning's statement, casting in bronze two cans of his beer of choice, Ballantine Ale, which Leo Castelli promptly sold. The original beer cans were a deep brass-colored metal, which was ideal for casting in bronze to achieve an effective trompe l'oeil effect. However, in contrast to the authentic appearance of the cast cans, he allowed his brushstrokes to remain visible in the painted labels, creating an imperfection visible only upon careful observation.
Johns cast each can and the base separately and imprinted his thumb in the base as the autographic mark of the artist's hand, ensuring that the work is handmade. Johns cast one can with an open top and painted the Ballantine insignia and the word Florida on its top. The other can is unopened, unmarked, and solidly impenetrable. Some critics read the contrast between the cans as a metaphor for the relationship between Johns and Rauschenberg - an illustration of the differences and the growing space between them. In this reading, the open can serves as a signifier for the gregarious and popular Rauschenberg who began spending much of his time in his Florida studio in 1959, while the closed one stands for Johns and his quiet, impenetrable public facade. Other critics read a narrative of everyday life into the difference between the two cans - that everyone lives their lives between the after, or what has already happened embodied by the opened can, and the before, or what has yet to transpire in the closed can. Despite some clues, like the thumbprint, Johns left the final interpretation of the sculpture open to the viewer's discretion. His foray into representing mass-produced goods within the realm of fine art paved the way for Pop art.
Oil on bronze - Museum Ludwig Koln
Periscope (Hart Crane)
Here Johns combined several of the motifs and symbols from his earlier paintings in a constrained palette of gray, black, and white. The upper right-hand corner of the painting contains half of a device circle. In 1959, Johns adopted a technique in which he attached a wooden slat, usually a ruler or canvas stretcher, to the painting to create a compass-drawn circle. The device dragged through the paint formed a target that echoed his earlier target paintings. However, here he interrupted the concentric circles of the target with an imprint of his outstretched hand. The handprint suggests the replacement of the artist's hand with a mechanical device.
The artist's hand is a recurring form in a series of works, including Periscope (Hart Crane), that Johns executed from 1962 through 1963 and that focus on Hart Crane, whose poetry resonated deeply with Johns. Crane famously committed suicide at 32 during a return trip from the tropics, by diving off a ship into the Gulf of Mexico. Just before he disappeared below the sea, he reached his hand above the waves. The handprint can be read as a visual reference to Crane's suicide. Executed after the bitter end of his relationship with Rauschenberg, it signals Johns' emotional distress in the wake of their breakup. The periscope in the title also refers to Crane's poem Cape Hatteras (1929), which had dual importance for Johns. He not only moved into a studio near Cape Hatteras in 1961, but the epic poem also traces the changes in one's memory as time passes. In the aftermath of their breakup, Johns likely identified with the theme of change and loss, which he illustrated through the grasping hand, the mirrored words, and the splashy brushwork that echoed waves crashing about a drowning man. In direct contrast to the coolly automated aesthetic of Pop art that his work helped bring about, Johns imbued his works of the early 1960s with complicated messages of loss and emotional hardship, which reflected his vulnerable position after the end of his and Rauschenberg's powerful and influential relationship.
Oil on canvas - Collection of the Artist
According to What
Johns created this expansive, seven by 16 foot painting by joining several canvases together, as well as by adding various found objects to the painted panels. He included techniques that appeared in earlier works, like "brushmarking," the stenciled names of colors, and cast body parts. He also expanded his visual repertoire through his inclusion of elements like silkscreened newspaper pages that discussed the Kremlin in the center of the painting. While Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg used silkscreening as a convenient method of reproducing photographs in paintings without evidence of the artist's hand, Johns fervently painted into and around the screened headlines, reinforcing the idea of the intertwining of artist and device explored in Periscope (Hart Crane) (1962). On the far left side, as an ode to his mentor, he attached a small canvas with the silhouette of Marcel Duchamp so only the back with the stretchers, date, title, and Johns' signature were visible. Above this small canvas, he also attached a vertical cross-section of a chair, with a mold of a leg seated in it, turned upside down. Johns added the found objects to create a painting that "allows things to change" as the lights and viewers shift around the work. This shift in focus illustrated Johns' belief that we all experience the world through multiple fragments viewed in shifting contexts from varying perspectives.
Oil on canvas with objects - Private collection
Johns originally designed this big lithograph as a poster for the Whitney Museum's 1997 retrospective exhibition of his work. The motif of the Savarin coffee can appeared in several of Johns' earlier works, both as a life-size, painted bronze sculpture and as a found object added to a painting. The Savarin image became a signifier for Johns and his oeuvre, which made it an ideal subject for this print. The background of the lithograph portrays brightly colored crosshatched lines, a style which he quoted from one of his most recent paintings. By visually placing the Savarin can directly in front of one of his current paintings, Johns succinctly referenced his entire career through the dialogue between the two items within the print, apropos for the self-promotion related to a career retrospective. Johns later revisited this same lithograph in a series of single edition mono-prints, in which he painted over the original print, adding a renewed sense of the artist's presence and extending the reference to his oeuvre into the 1980s.
Lithograph - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Catenary (Jacob's Ladder)
Description: A "catenary" is the curve formed by a rope or chain hanging freely from two fixed points, and is the theme that governs Johns' recent Bridge series of prints, drawings, and paintings (1997). In this particular work, the sensuousness of paint dominates the canvas. Johns applied the monochromatic gray paint in long, loose brushstrokes over a multicolored underpainting, which reveals itself in the gaps between the strokes. He extended the paint beyond the canvas onto the wooden slats on either side of the painting, leaning towards the viewer and integrating the found objects into the painted field. On the left side, Johns attached the pine slat with a hinge at the bottom so it projects out into the viewer's space. Similarly, on the right side, he attached two slats, connected to each other and the canvas with hinges. He secured both sides with a hook and eye, so that they do not fall against the wall, but dangle in the space in front of the painting, evoking the wood and ribbon tumbling block folk toy of the subtitle.
The sensuously applied paint is interrupted by the white arc of a thin piece of rope suspended between the wooden pieces from a metal eye attached to each slat. This simple curvilinear form traverses the steely background and visually evokes bridges and the connections they provide. While the rope is most often read as referring to manmade objects, like suspension bridges, others interpret it as suggesting natural forms like valleys and the curves of the human body. Some critics have viewed the rope's response to gravity as an allusion to the progression of one's lifetime, or the connections and limitations that accompany advancing age. Although Johns divulged that the title reminded him to dream, referring to the biblical patriarch's dream in which Jacob envisioned a ladder that connected heaven to earth, no singular interpretation is wholly correct. As with all of Johns' works, the viewer determines the meaning of the artwork, and the simply evocative, curvilinear form of the rope provides a myriad of interpretations.
At the bottom of the canvas, in the same gray as the background, the artist stenciled ''Catenary 1999 Jasper Johns Jacob's Ladder'' in a cryptic system in which only every third letter is read - a nod to the semiotic play of his earlier works and an effective mode of continuing his exploration of how people see the world around them. Although Johns eschews the images and symbols of his earlier works for a more abstract style, allegorical references persist that extend the minimal forms into the cultural world around us.
Encaustic on canvas and wood with objects - Collection of the artist