Collections> Browse Jasper Johns

Collections> Browse Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns
Holdings (445)
1 painting, 10 multiples, 397 edition prints/proofs, 5 books, 2 sculptures, 5 internet art, 4 posters, 15 , 6 costumes

Wikipedia About Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns, Jr. (born May 15, 1930) is an American contemporary artist who works primarily in painting and printmaking. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Jasper Johns, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

In 1958, at his first solo exhibition in New York City, Jasper Johns dazzled the art world with startlingly beautiful paintings and drawings of unexpectedly mundane images: targets, numerals, and the American flag. His work emerged at a time when Abstract Expressionism still held sway as the dominant style, and Johns’ canvases, with their gorgeously tactile surfaces built up of encaustic and collage, retained the painterly qualities of that style. His imagery, though, was obstinately commonplace, without a hint of the transcendental emotion that the previous generation had hoped to convey through abstraction. Critics of the time wrote about his work as a continuation of Dada (the irreverent “anti-art” movement of the early twentieth century), and in fact Johns has been deeply engaged by the thinking of Marcel Duchamp, whose “readymades” seem to be conceptual precursors for Johns’ paintings and sculptures of such banalities as alphabets, beer cans, and flashlights.1 But rather than looking backward to Dada, Johns was in fact at the forefront of a new sensibility that, within a few years, would produce Pop Art.

Johns himself went on to other things. His work turned darkly melancholy in the mid-1960s, in expansive monochromatic canvases that included cryptic texts, found objects, and fragmented imagery. These pensive works spoke evocatively but never explicitly about the pain of loss and the difficulty of human relationships. During the 1970s, he pursued a rigorous exploration of the formal aspects of picture-making through an abstract hatch-mark motif he had noticed on a passing car. Personal content returned in the 1980s in dense, scrapbooklike compositions made from a miscellany of images including his own works; quotations from Picasso, Holbein, and other artists; favorite objects; his studio and living spaces; and childhood memories. The reintroduction of personal iconography—now in a more open way—was a result of a conscious decision on Johns’ part. In 1984 he admitted, “In my early work I tried to hide my personality, my psychological state, my emotions … but eventually it seemed like a losing battle. Finally, one must simply drop the reserve.”2 Flags and targets continue to crop up in these late works, but they sit side-by-side with depictions of family photographs and childhood mementos.

Johns’ working method has consistently been based on theme and variation—once he adopts a motif, he reworks it in as many ways as he can conceive, changing scale, medium, or color; dissecting its parts; mirroring or shifting its position within the composition, and so on. These motifs recede and then reappear in a new form, sometimes over decades: the flag, for example, which he first used in 1954, has been a constant presence, appearing as recently as 2000 in a trio of linoleum-cut prints. Johns is enormously curious about how changing one aspect of a thing can alter how we see and experience it: “I’m concerned with a thing’s not being what it was, with its becoming something other than what it is, with any moment when one identifies a thing precisely and with the slipping away of that moment.”3 This fascination with change, and his strong preference for images he does not have to invent, have led him to use a number of forms traced from other images, including one whose source he has not revealed: the so-called Green Angel, the principal motif in the Walker Art Center’s 1990 painting of the same name. Hovering somewhere between abstraction and representation, it is aggravatingly opaque, yet it makes the entirely reasonable demand that we start by seeing it for what it is—a picture—instead of wondering what it is a picture of. Johns’ work rewards this kind of patient, careful looking.

Given his preoccupation with change, perception, and memory, printmaking—a medium that lends itself to extensive reworking and variation—had a natural appeal for Johns. He made his first print in 1960, a scribbly lithographic rendering of a target, and has since made more than 350 editions using dozens of techniques. The trajectory of his graphic oeuvre mirrors that of his paintings; thus his early prints concentrate on images of “things the mind already knows.”4 In addition to that first target, he has depicted flags, alphabets, the numerals one through nine, and common household objects like lightbulbs and coat hangers. During the late 1960s and 1970s, he experimented with new techniques such as the softly graduated hues of the “rainbow-roll”; he was also among the first to use offset printing processes to make fine-art prints. Since then he has become known as a virtuoso graphic artist, with an output that ranges from enormously complex screenprints with dozens of colors to large-scale Carborundum prints to simple, one-color linoleum cuts. The Walker’s holdings include a complete archive of his prints—the only one in a public collection—which was the basis for two traveling exhibitions: Jasper Johns: Printed Symbols (1990) and Past Things and Present: Jasper Johns since 1983 (2003).5

The burgeoning interest in printmaking during the 1960s was among the many shifts in a postwar art world in which the tenets of modernism—purity of media, truth to materials, and sanctity of authorship—were called into question. Many artists found it natural and productive to work across disciplines and in collaborative situations. Johns drew particular inspiration from two key innovators in the performing arts: composer John Cage, whose music mined the properties of ambient sound, noise, and silence; and choreographer Merce Cunningham, whose dance took a similar stance against artifice, concerning itself instead with the natural, uninflected movements of the human body. Johns met both Cage and Cunningham through Robert Rauschenberg, and the four became close friends who traded ideas and occasionally worked collaboratively.

During the 1960s, both Rauschenberg and Johns served as set designers for Cunningham’s dance company.6 One of Johns’ first projects was Walkaround Time (1968), for which he created costumes and a set comprising seven transparent plastic boxes bearing screenprinted designs based on the imagery of Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915–1923). The transparency of the set elements is a reference to the glass of Duchamp’s original sculpture, which slides into focus at the end of the piece when the dancers move the lightweight boxes into a configuration matching the composition of The Large Glass. The mechanized eroticism of Duchamp’s work is echoed in Cunningham’s choreography, which includes passages of turning, rolling, and interlocking movement for two or three dancers, and a striptease performed while running in place.7 The Walker acquired Johns’ original set pieces from the Cunningham Dance Foundation in 2000,8 finding it emblematic of an era of adventuresome, interdisciplinary experimentation, but also of the institution’s long relationship with three artists—Johns, Cunningham, and Duchamp—who have radically changed the course of twentieth-century cultural history.

  1. Johns has said he was unfamiliar with Duchamp’s work until after his 1958 solo exhibition. Kirk Varnedoe, Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1996), 386, n. 114.

  2. Johns, interview with April Bernard and Mimi Thompson, “Johns on … ,” Vanity Fair, February 1984, 65.

  3. Johns, quoted in G. R. Swenson, “What Is Pop Art? Part II,” Artnews 62, no. 10 (February 1964): 43.

  4. Johns, quoted in “His Heart Belongs to Dada,” Time, May 4, 1959, 58.

  5. The bulk of the prints came through two gifts: master printer Kenneth Tyler donated 92 works in 1985, and another 227 were added in 1988 through a gift by Judy and Kenneth Dayton. Since that time, Johns has donated one example of each print he makes.

  6. Rauschenberg was resident designer from 1954 to 1964, and Johns was appointed artistic advisor in 1967.

  7. See Ned Carroll and Sally Banes, “Cunningham and Duchamp,” in Germano Celant, ed., Merce Cunningham (Milan: Edition Charta, 1999), 179–185; and Susan Sontag et al., Dancers on a Plane: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, exh. cat. (New York: Knopf, with Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London, 1990).

  8. The company retains a working version of the set, which they use when performing the dance. The original pieces were meant to be inflated, but due to deterioration of the plastic material they can no longer be filled with air. When exhibited they are stretched over armatures of lightweight steel tubes inserted in the original rod pockets.

Rothfuss, Joan. “Jasper Johns.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center


artist’s quote artist’s quote , 1959

Sometimes I see it and then paint it. Other times I paint it and then see it. Both are impure situations, and I prefer neither. Jasper Johns, 1959