Jasper Johns is an artist who we have collected in depth. We have all of Johns’ prints and we have a couple of paintings in the collection. He’s one of the most important artists, I think, of the post-war decades. He was one of the first to move away from abstract expressionism. As Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline were trying to find a way to make abstract paintings that could be universally understood and timeless in their subject matter, Johns was among the generation that rejected the idea that art could be tragic in its dimensions, that art could be universally understood. That was a little too romantic for the artists that came of age with Johns. What he wanted to do was create paintings that were as luscious in surface as the things that the abstract expressionists had been doing, but bring subject matter back in that was not sentimental or associative or as his mentor, Marcel Duchamp, would have said, that it did not appeal to the retinal aspects of perception, that were not beautiful. So, Johns was working with common objects and signs and symbols, like a target, an American flag, the numerals from zero to nine, the letters of the alphabet, things that everybody knew and understood … things the mind already understands, I think is how he put it. He came immediately to the forefront of the art world in the mid 1950s with his target paintings.
This piece came a little bit later, in 1960. It’s a flashlight and Johns said he wanted to go out and find a flashlight. He had an ideal image of a flashlight in his mind and he went out to look for the flashlight and he couldn’t find it. It wasn’t really easy to find. It was what he thought would be a generic flashlight but, in fact, it wasn’t really out there. It took him a long time to find it. When he got it, what he did was cover it with sculpie, which is a hobby material that looks like bronze; so, if you wanted to make what looked like a bronze sculpture and you couldn’t afford to make it, you could just buy this sculpie material. He took the actual flashlight, covered it with sculpie so it looked like a bronze piece and, then, put it on a pedestal. In other words, he’s taking this very common object, which everybody understands, and making it into something that looks like it should be precious, making it into a sculpture on a pedestal.
I think an important thing to remember in terms of this piece is what Duchamp had done in the early part of the century with ready-mades. Marcel Duchamp really revolutionized avant-garde art practice by going out to a store, as Johns did, looking for ready-made objects, like a snow shovel, a coat rack, a bottle rack, a urinal, and purchasing them and, then, taking them to the studio and signing them and declaring them to be sculptures. He didn’t do anything to them, for the most part, but just signed them. The idea was that it just took the idea. If you said it was a sculpture, then it could be a sculpture. It just needed a new way of thinking about it. When he was looking for the objects that he would make into ready-mades, Duchamp said that he proceeded with a standard of complete indifference. In other words, he looked for things that were neither beautiful nor ugly. If he found something like that, so that no associations could be made and when you approached it, it was neutral, then, that was acceptable. He could make a ready-made out of that.
What Johns has done is akin to that. He’s looking for something that’s neutral but it’s sort of an opposite procedure as well, because he’s really starting out with an ideal, an idea about what something should be and, then, not being able to find it very easily, creates his own. He’s taking the ready-made and elevating it by adding to the material that’s on it already, sort of neutralizing it by making it a monochrome and making it sort of homogeneous in its material. He also had made beer cans and a paint can filled with brushes in a similar way; so, it was something that followed his interest in common objects of the studio and of the everyday life.
Why he chose a flashlight, I think is interesting, too. He’d also had worked with a light bulb. He made a similar piece by taking a light bulb that was still in a socket and it has a little end of wire coming off of it and, then, bronzing it with sculpie. I think the two together have something to do with maybe the idea of enlightenment, the idea of an artist working through some kind of inspiration, receiving inspiration, and, then, the cartoon idea of the light bulb as the symbol for that kind of inspiration. I think maybe there’s something there. Johns is sort of famously taciturn about what his work means; so, any reading is going to be a personal one. But, I think, given his interest in the processes that an artist goes through and the way that an artist chooses subjects, it’s probably not too far from what he might have been thinking.
If you think about Johns in comparison to the abstract expressionist painters, his work is completely dead pan and doesn’t have any of the grand goals or the sort of aspirations that they had. It’s just another sort of reversal of that generation’s attempts to reach something that was tragic.
Johns work was embraced very quickly because I think it seemed to be a complete body of work that had sprung up from so-called nowhere. Nobody had seen his work before. He allowed Leo Castelli to come into the studio – Leo Castelli being a New York dealer – and there was a studio full of paintings of targets and Castelli was completely blown away. He had never seen anything like it before. At the time, in the mid 1950s, abstract expressionism, abstraction, was completely dominant and it just looked fresh and it looked fully formed. If you’ve seen the early target paintings, they’re incredibly beautiful surfaces. Yet, in the flag paintings, there is this subject matter that hadn’t been dealt with before. It looked like what it was, which was something brand new and something that was going to lead somewhere very interesting. It sort of looked like pop art at the beginning but, quickly, it was clear that it was not pop art and, anyway, it came five years before pop art really flowered.