Jasper Johns

Orfeas Katsoulis | Mar 11, 2023

Table of Content


Jasper Johns (Augusta, May 15, 1930) is an American painter and sculptor, considered one of the leading exponents of New Dada along with artist Robert Rauschenberg.

Early years

Johns was born in 1930 in Augusta, but grew up in Allendale, followed by his grandparents and uncles following his parents' divorce. Relative to this period of his life, he would later say, "where I grew up there were no artists and no art, so I didn't really know what it meant. I thought it meant that I would be in a different situation than I was." In an interview in the early 1960s, he recounts that as early as age three he began drawing without stopping, and that at age five he decided to become an artist. He studied in Columbia (South Carolina) until his fourth year of elementary school, then moved among various states along with his mother, stepfather and half-brothers, finishing his higher education in Sumter (South Carolina). Between 1947 and 1948 he attended the University of South Carolina for a total of three semesters, then at the invitation of his own art teachers moved to New York where in 1949 he studied at the Parsons School of Design for a semester. Thereafter he worked as a courier and a salesman.


In the early 1950s Johns served in the Army and was also sent to the field in Sendai, Japan, as part of the Korean War, returning to New York in 1953. On a veterans' scholarship, he enrolled at Hunter College, but, following an accident that happened to him on the first day, he dropped out. Between 1953 and 1954 he worked at the Marboro Books bookstore. Thanks to the writer Suzi Gablick he got to know the artist Robert Rauschenberg, with whom a long historical relationship of friendship and also mutual artistic influence was born. In 1954 Johns also met composers Morton Feldman and John Cage (with whom, incidentally, he returned to Japan a few years later) and dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham.

Toward the middle of the decade, the artist decides to destroy all of his previous works (he would even buy back the ones he sold in order to get rid of them), and only four of them manage to be saved: this action corresponds to the beginning of a new period for the artist, of a radical change and rebirth. He thus conceives an original and personal artistic style, as opposed to the gestural and energetic style of so-called Abstract Expressionism, and one that will contribute to the birth of movements such as Pop art, Minimalism and Conceptual Art. He then produces the first Target with Four Faces, the first series of Numbers 1,2, 5 and 7, and the first White Flag which will be followed over the years by numerous other decomposed, inverted, multiplied or desaturated versions in the forms of paintings, prints and drawings. He makes use of clear and impersonal icons and subjects in order to focus on the technique of making and handcrafting the work.

In 1955 together with Rauschenberg he founded the firm Matson Jones - Custom Display within which the two acted as designers of store windows, working for example for Tiffany&Co and for Bonwit Teller the following year. As part of one of these displays, White Flag is exhibited.

In May 1957 Johns participated in a group exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery, then in 1958 at the same gallery he exhibited his work again as part of a solo show. Alfred Barr, the first director of the Moma - Museum of Modern Art in New York, was impressed by Target with Plaster Casts (1955), although it was the subject of debate and criticism before being exhibited because it was considered too provocative to be exhibited in a museum. The New York museum then purchased no less than three of the artist's works. Target with Four Faces appears on the cover of the well-known Artnews magazine. In the same 1958, Johns' works are exhibited for the first time in Europe at the XXIX Venice Biennale. The artist thus begins to establish himself on the American and European art scene; in 1959 he exhibits in Paris and Milan. Also in 1958 he made his first metal sculptures, namely Flashlight I and Lightclub I.

After his success following his solo show at Castelli's in 1958, Johns decided to embark on a new path, the beginning of which is represented by the work False Start (1959) in which the artist shifted from the encaustic technique to oil painting in favor of a layering of color, with more inconstant brushstrokes. Barr was puzzled by this new work as the distribution of color was very close to the art of Abstract Expressionism, to which Johns had always been hostile.


In the early 1960s the artist began to take an interest in the motif of the map of the United States (also the subject of several later versions such as the flag) and in the theme of human body imprints; he also began to devote himself to working with bronze in sculpture. In 1961 he traveled to Europe for the first time when his work was exhibited at the Galerie Rive Droite in Paris and later participated in the exhibition Le Nouveau Réalisme à Paris et à New York held at the same gallery. Unlike the earlier period, his art becomes prone to autobiographical, more complex and disorienting. In many paintings he uses the color gray extensively (also in homage to the painter René Magritte), such as in Canvas (1956) and Gray Alphabets (1956) in which a melancholy level of expression dominates.

In the works of this decade he more often inserts lines, color scales or thermometers that render the idea of measurement, as can be perceived from Periscope (1963). During these years he collaborated with writer and art curator Frank O'Hara with whom he organized a collection of images and poems, and also quotes one of his poems in the work In Memory of My Feelings - Frank O'Hara (1961). In 1963 he participated in the Pop Art USA exhibition at the Oakland Art Museum in California and became one of the founding heads of the Foundation for Contemporany Performance Arts Inc. In 1964 he created his largest work to date, which, according to Kirk Varnedoe, constitutes a compendium of all his artwork.

That same year he held a retrospective with over 170 of his works at the Jewish Museum in New York, later repeated in England and California, and participated in the XXXII Venice Biennale and Documenta III in Kassel. Finally, also in 1964, on Flag Day, gallery owner Leo Castelli decided to give President John Kennedy a bronze version of Flag (1960), a choice that Johns found horrifying as he saw it as an instrumentalization of his art. In 1969 the artist published Thoughts on Duchamp in Art in America and later received an honorary degree in Classics from the University of South Carolina. At the end of the decade art historian Max Kozloff published a monograph on him entitled Jasper Johns.


Between 1974 and 1982 the so-called cross hatching (or in English cross hatchings) becomes the main pattern of his paintings. It appears for the first time in Untitled (1972) but is best represented by Scent (1973-1974), where the artist's growing interest in the techniques of graphic art, united in this work with the themes of sexuality and death, is manifested. The same themes can also be found in the later Between the Clock and the Bed (1981), which draws on the painting of the same name by Edvard Munch. In 1973 he met the playwright Samuel Beckett in Paris to discuss possible collaboration on the art book Foirades

In the second half of the decade he held a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York later replicated in Cologne, Paris, London, Tokyo, and San Francisco. Later, the New York museum purchased Three Flags for $1 million, or the highest amount ever paid up to that time for a still-living American artist, and throughout the 1980s Johns's works would steadily reach very high prices. In 1978 he was elected Honorary Academician of the Academy of the Arts of Drawing in Florence (and later Academician Emeritus in 1987 and 1993). Between 1979 and 1981 he returned to using objects such as knives, forks, and spoons within his creations, and also became interested in new forms of objective representation such as Tantric motifs.


Beginning in the 1980s, the works began to be characterized by a strong psychological and private setting, as evidenced, for example, by In the Studio (1982), Perilous Night (1982), and Racing Thoughts (1983) in which the artist refers to a mental disorder that afflicted him during this period. His painting style also changed, with the introduction of double-reading images, quotations from other artists, and trompe l'œil effects. Between 1980 and 1982 he became a member of the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Stockholm and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston. Between 1985 and 1986 he painted Four Seasons, traditionally recognized as the ages of life, which he first exhibited in Leo Castelli's Gallery on West Broadway and later secured him the grand prize at the 1988 Venice Biennale. In 1989, he was named the 38th member of the South Carolina Hall of Fame, an award reserved for his country's most distinguished figures, and inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The documentaryJasper Johns: Ideas in Paint by Rick Tejada-Flores (1989) is also dedicated to him.

Last years

During the 1990s he is the recipient of several awards, including the National Medal of Arts, which is presented to him at the White House by U.S. President George Bush in 1990. He holds a variety of exhibitions: a retrospective at Moma in New York with subsequent stops in Cologne and Tokyo (1996-1997), Jasper Johns: New Paintings and Works on Paper at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art followed by exhibitions at the Yale University Art Gallery and the Dallas Museum of Art (1999), an exhibition at the Walker Art Center that continued to other centers in the United States, Spain, Scotland, and Ireland (2003), and finally Jasper Johns: Prints from the Low Road Studio at the Castelli Gallery (2004).

At the end of the century, a new phase in his painting tended toward the "emptying" of the pictorial surface; this can be seen, for example, in the Catenary series (1999), in which the title catenary denotes the curve created by the effect of gravity by a wire that is attached to its ends, so that in the various works the wires, real or painted, cross the surface and are the only subject within the canvas. In recent years Johns has retired mainly to Sharon, Connecticut, and to the island of Saint Martin in the French West Indies, where he owns a studio built for him by architect Philip Johnson.

There are several ways to frame the artist. First, Johns is considered one of the leading exponents of New Dada, an American art current that draws on the Dada art of the turn of the century, and like it inserts so-called Duchampian ready-mades (i.e., objects taken from reality) within the artwork. This current is also very close to the contemporary French Nouveau Réalisme, in which objects taken from the most mundane everyday life are used. The inclusion of the ready-made in the work is thus also a solution to the problem of representing the real and the ordinary. The artist himself states that in his creations one finds those objects that one looks at but does not actually see.

The use of poorly manipulated objects that are simply inserted into the work also ties in with the fact that Johns rejects the art of Abstract Expressionism, and thus intends to minimize the gestural component of his intervention by privileging the formal and constituent aspects of the image itself. This hostile position is already manifested in the work Target with Plaster Casts where the presence of casts of human body parts might allude to the supposed opposition between "abstract" and "figurative" art. Also in Painting with Two Balls it serves as an attack on the myth of American painting linked to the generation of artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning: the two painted balls in fact allude to an ironic description of himself, against the typical masculinity flaunted theatrically by other American artists.

Finally, he is considered the artist who starts Pop Art but without being aware of it.

Another characteristic of his art is to keep open the question of the distinction or nexus between reality and representation, real image and painted image; in fact, many of his works, beginning with Flags, are characterized by a detached and tautological presentation of a common object whose boundaries coincide with the limits of the canvas. What matters to the artist is the intensity with which what is already known about the object affects what we see in it; in fact, he himself does not need a model to paint a flag or a target, since the idea he has of the object in his mind is sufficient. Especially the works having flags, letters or targets as their subject, therefore, play on the ambivalence between the object itself and its representation. Very often, referring to his Flags, he asks the rhetorical question, "Is it a flag or a painting?"


Encaustic is a technique the artist uses very often to make his works. It dates back to ancient Egypt and consists of mixing pigments and melted wax in what is known as encaustic so as to allow them to melt, to which Johns usually then adds bits of fabric or newspaper clippings. The end result is bordering on the figurative, yet retains visible traces of the artist's manipulation, the weaving of cloth or texts printed on paper, allowing the work to open up to multiple planes of interpretation between the presentation and representation of an image. The surface of the works is seductive and fascinating, as well as new, original and current in the context of U.S. art during the years in which Johns makes use of it.

Traditionally, the so-called Punic wax used for encaustic is obtained by boiling hot wax in seawater, to which water, slaked lime and glue are then added; the mixture dissolved in water and still hot is thrown on the color and immediately mixed, laid on the work, allowed to dry, and finally heated again to allow the pigments to resurface. This technique allows any type of pigment to be added and does not need a very fast turnaround time; it is also very long-lasting since the wax is not subject to oxidation.


  1. Jasper Johns
  2. Jasper Johns
  3. ^ Jasper Johns compie novant'anni. Il racconto di "Flag" in un'intervista degli anni 70, su ArtsLife, 15 maggio 2020. URL consultato il 26 marzo 2021.
  4. ^ "Lifetime Honors: National Medal of Arts". National Endowment for the Arts. n.d. Archived from the original on January 20, 2010. Retrieved October 14, 2021.
  5. (en-US) « Jasper Johns | About the Painter | American Masters | PBS », American Masters,‎ 28 mars 2008 (lire en ligne, consulté le 28 septembre 2017)
  6. Member History: Jasper Johns. American Philosophical Society, abgerufen am 14. Oktober 2018 (englisch, mit Biographie).

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