Jasper Johns 1930-
By Aliza Wall
Jasper John has been and continues to be a difficult artist to summarise. He depicts objects so seductively simple—flags, targets, maps—that promise familiarity but, when examined, are incredibly technical, conceptual, and self-referential. Born May 15, 1930, in Athens, Georgia, Johns always knew he wanted to be an artist, quipping that the “idea must have been conveyed to me that an artist is someone of interest in society.” Johns pursued formal artistic education at the University of South Carolina but, at the insistence of his art teachers, moved to New York in 1948, where he would attend the Parsons School of Design for a semester. Because his schooling was so fragmented and brief, Johns is widely considered to be self-taught. His education was disrupted when he was drafted into the army during the Korean War, serving two years, which were spent between South Carolina and Sendai, Japan.
Johns returned to New York in 1953, and became friends with artist Robert Rauschenberg (with whom he would later become romantically involved), composer John Cage, and choreographer Merce Cunningham. During this period, both Johns and Rauschenberg reintroduced figurative subject matter to painting and are further credited with inspiring the tradition from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art. This early period also yielded what is perhaps Johns’ most famous work, Flag (1954-55). Created after Johns’ dream about painting an American flag, he did so, depicting the flag accurately but using newspaper and fabric covered with encaustic, a medium that records the artist’s every choice. In this sense, Flag relates to the Abstract Expressionist movement and its reification of the unique hand of the artist. At the same time, it rejects that tradition, intended by Johns to represent things that “are” rather than “judgements” about them. However, the image necessarily evokes vastly different associations, depending on the cultural context and experience of the viewer in question. During this period, Johns also depicted targets, alphabets, and numbers, other somewhat “premade” subjects in the collective human consciousness. In 1958, while on a visit to Rauschenberg, gallery owner Leo Castelli ended up in Johns’ flat, where he discovered the artist’s unique early oeuvre. Castelli signed John’s immediately, his first show taking place later the same year. After just one exhibition, Johns was catapulted into a celebrity status. During this early period, Johns also experimented with sculpture, his most notable of the period being Painted Bronze (1960) which depicted two cans of ale. Although the cans were extremely difficult to make, Johns revelled in their apparent simplicity, harkening back to the idea of Duchamp’s irreverent ready-mades.
During the 1970s, Johns focused on a new style: the cross-hatching pattern. John’s interest in the pattern derived, in his own words, from its “literalness, repetitiveness, obsessive quality, order with dumbness….and complete lack of meaning.” Although visually very simple, this motif came to represent various different themes during its use. Corpse and Mirror (1972) is thought to allude to Johns interest in the development of the psyche, in this instance Jacques Lacan’s essay on the mirror style of children in which they are able to constitute a mental representation of themselves. Through this reading, Corpse and Mirror may well represent the constitution of self and identity. However, the cross-hatched lines, while gestural, are utterly devoid of association or emotion. In this respect, they reveal even less to the viewer than Flag; Johns has denied the audience the courtesy of association. Weeping Women (1975) also uses the cross-hatch pattern but instead evokes Picasso’s 1937 work of the same title. The figures are suggested by long strokes, obeying the Cubist convention of a central spine from which the painting opens out.
The 1980s mark a major shift in Johns’ work; the artist finally abandoning an obsession with the denial of self, personality, and subjectivity. His 1983 piece, Racing Thoughts, continues to use cross-hatching, but layers undoubtedly personal images like a framed Barnett Newman print, a photo-puzzle of Leo Castelli, and an iron-on transfer Mona Lisa on top of it. Of this painting Johns responded glibly, “they must be things I was thinking of.” This image, as well as other of the period, are dramatic in their mere preference. Unlike his early universal symbols or neutral cross-hatching, Johns’ selection of unrelated motifs reveal a sense of taste and subjectivity. This introspective and self-referential period continues today; Johns has not yet ceased to produce. In 2011, the artist received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award issued by the US government. Upon his death, Johns’ Connecticut estate will be converted into an artists’ residence, only further cementing his legacy as one of the most important painters of his generation.
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