Progression of Art
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.
Encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric mounted on plywood, three panels - 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 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.
Encaustic on newspaper and cloth over canvas surmounted by four tinted-plaster faces in wood box with hinged front - Museum of Modern Art, New York
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.
Oil on canvas - Private collection
Painted Bronze (Ale Cans)
In this bronze sculpture, Johns blurs the line between found object and artistic recreation. He reportedly fashioned the sculpture after Willem de Kooning sneeringly joked that gallerist Leo Castelli could sell anything, including two beer cans. Johns accepted the challenge implicit in De Kooning's statement, casting two cans of Ballantine Ale in bronze and hand-painting them, which, of course, Leo Castelli promptly sold. Because the bronze mimics the original color of the beer cans, Johns created a trompe l'oeil effect; however, he also subtly subverted the effect by allowing his brushstrokes to remain visible in the painted labels, creating an imperfection visible only upon careful observation.
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 differences between the cans as a metaphor for the relationship between Johns and Rauschenberg. In this reading, the open can represents 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 insist on a less biographical narrative that simply suggests everyday life: the closed can pointing to the before, to possibilities, and the open can to the after, to consequences. Of course, Johns never indicated his preferred reading, leaving the possibilities of interpretation open. In many ways, Johns' representation of mass-produced goods was an early indicator of the trend of Pop Art.
Painted bronze - Museum Ludwig, Cologne
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 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, forming a target that echoed his earlier paintings. Here, though, 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 the American poet 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. Johns's handprint, then, can also be read as a visual reference to Crane's suicide. Executed after the bitter end of his relationship with Rauschenberg, it signals Johns's 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.
Oil on canvas - Collection of the artist
According to What
Johns created this dizzingly expansive, sixteen-foot-long painting by joining several canvases together and attaching various found objects to the painted surface: a chair, a cast of legs, another stretched canvas with a hinge, metal letters, and a coat hanger. He included techniques that appeared in earlier works, like "brushmarking," the stenciled names of colors, the hinged lid that can be open and closed, and cast body parts. He also expanded his visual repertoire by including elements of silkscreened newspaper pages reporting about 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 the artist's hand and devices to create mechanical reproductions.
Like with many of Johns's works, the various elements combine into layers of possible meanings. While many of the elements seem to be clues to a secret meaning, one overt reference reminds the viewer of Johns's debt to his mentor, Marcel Duchamp. On the far-most left panel, one finds a blurred image of Duchamp and his initials "MD." Johns recalled, "Duchamp did a work which was a torn square (I think it's called something like Myself Torn To Pieces). I took a tracing of the profile, hung it by a string and cast its shadow so it became distorted and no longer square.... I have deliberately taken Duchamp's own work and slightly changed it, and though to make a kind of play on whose work it is, whether mine or his." Johns's incessant playing with artistic authorship is on full display in According to What, and as always, he requires the viewer's participation in meaning-making by presenting the disparate elements without a clear map to their relations.
Oil on canvas with objects - Private collection
Corpse and Mirror II
In 1972, Johns hit upon a new motif - the crosshatch - that he would explore for a decade. Traditionally in drawing and printmaking, artists use the crosshatch, an array of lines, to create gradations of shadow; more closely placed lines create darker shadows while sparser arrays create lighter shadows. In his typically playful way, Johns divorced the motif from its typical use, abstracting and repeating it across the canvas in primary colors to create a pulsating, abstract composition. Johns recalled seeing the motif on a passing car, saying "I only saw it for a second, but knew immediately that I was going to use it. It had all the qualities that interest me - literalness, repetitiveness, an obsessive quality, order with dumbness, and the possibility of a complete lack of meaning."
While the motif may be "dumb" and lack meaning, Johns's title Corpse and Mirror II suggests something else at play. Many have suggested that the title refers to both the Surrealist game Exquisite Corpse, a collaborative game built by consecutive artistic moves, and Marcel Duchamp's quintessential and enigmatic work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23). With both Surrealist and Dadaist references, Johns subtly suggests his lineage and aesthetic interests. While the lines of the paintings are somewhat gestural, their repetitive nature suggests a coolness, or formality, freed from emotion, but the title, with its reference to death and reflection, suggests something more macabre and philosophical, creating a tension between composition and subject matter that Johns continuously exploits.
Oil and sand on four joined canvases - Art Institute of Chicago
Catenary (Jacob's Ladder)
In the mid-1990s, after another retrospective, Johns embarked on a series exploring catenaries - curves created by a length of cord or chain hanging freely from two fixed points. In Catenary (Jacob's Ladder), household string is suspended between two strips of wood on either side of the painting that are cantilevered out from the canvas. The wood strips and the dangling string evoke the wood and ribbon tumbling block toy of the painting's subtitle. Both the string and the wood strips cast shadows on the rich dark gray ground. Returning to encaustic, pigment mixed in wax, Johns's monochromatic surface retains the gestural strokes of application, creating a dense palimpsest of marks that is at once suggestive and impenetrable.
The simple curvilinear form evokes bridges and the connections they provide, but it also suggests natural forms, like the valleys and curves of the human body. Some critics have viewed the rope's response to gravity as an allusion to the progression of one's life, or the connections and limitations that accompany advancing age. Besides the wooden toy, Jacob's ladder also refers to the biblical story in which Jacob dreamt of a ladder that connected heaven to earth. As is typical in all of Johns's work, allusions abound in the painting, but here they all circle around themes of connection.
At the bottom of the canvas, in the same gray as the background, the artist stenciled a string of letters with no spaces between them, and one can make out the title and the year of the painting, but not without some difficulty. In this subtle, yet playful, compositional choice, Johns continues to engage in the very themes that have preoccupied him for decades: the complicated nature of meaning and interpretation, the confusion of figure and ground, abstraction and representation, and the desire to activate the viewer beyond passive looking.
Encaustic on canvas and wood with objects - Collection of the artist