Jasper Johns
213 pages

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Jasper Johns


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213 pages

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At a time when the dominant mode of painting, Abstract Expressionism, emphasised expressive drama through bold brushwork and largely abstract compositions, Johns’ paintings of the American flag, targets, numbers and the alphabet demonstrated a decided departure from convention. Despite being painted with obvious care, they seemed emotionally reticent, cool and quiet, far from the emotional fireworks then fashionable. “It all began… with my painting a picture of an American flag. Using this design took care of a great deal for me because I didn’t have to design it. So I went on to similar things like the targets - things the mind already knows. That gave me room to work on other levels. For instance, I’ve always thought of painting as a surface; painting it in one color made this very clear. Then I decided that looking at a painting should not require a special kind of focus like going to church. A picture ought to be looked at the same way you look at a radiator.” Unlike most artists’ statements in New York during the 1950s, Johns’ remarks contained none of the familiar talk of doubt and angst, and his selection of subject matter appeared deliberate, thoughtful, and far removed from emotional attachments and desires. To younger artists, his art seemed not so much cold and unfeeling as clear-eyed and honest after the excesses of Abstract Expressionism. Furthermore, in selecting recognisable subjects, Johns seemed to reject prevailing abstract modes of painting, yet his subjects themselves - flags, targets, numbers - each possessed a vital characteristic of classic abstraction, namely, a flatness rendering them all but indistinguishable from the picture plane itself. This book underlines how Johns’s work made the polarity between abstraction and representation that had dominated debates about modern art for decades seem suddenly obsolete, opening up other ways of thinking about art’s relation to the world. It also tries to understand why, since his first exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery at the age of twenty-seven, he has remained one of the major artists of the contemporary artistic scene.



Publié par
Date de parution 15 septembre 2015
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781783107728
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 2 Mo

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Author: Catherine Craft

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© Confidential Concepts, worldwide, USA
© Parkstone Press International, New York, USA
Image-Bar www.image-bar.com
© Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, USA/ADAGP, Paris/Succession Marcel Duchamp
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
© Edvard Munch Estate, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, USA/ BONO, Oslo
© Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, USA
Art © Robert Rauschenberg/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

All right reserved.
No parts of this publication may be reproduced or adapted without the permission of the copyright holder, throughout the world. Unless otherwise specified, copyright on the works reproduced lies with the respective photographers. Despite intensive research, it has not always been possible to etablish copyright ownership. Where this is the case, we would appreciate notification.

ISBN: 978-1-78310-772-8
Catherine Craft

Jasper Johns
Pyre 2 , 2003. Oil on canvas with wood slat,
string, and hinge, 168.3 x 111.8 x 17.1 cm .
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fractional and
promised gift of Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Being an Artist
The Birth of an Artist
Private and Public
The Changing Focus of the Eye
The Freedom of Objects
Changing Moods
The Artist and his Viewers
Marcel Duchamp: Thought in Art
Multiple Impressions
Not Designed, But Taken
Printing and Painting
Untitled and Related Works
Thought, Embodied
Creation and Destruction
Dropping the Reserve
Something Happening
Shifting Meanings
Picasso: Different Kinds of Qualities
Second Childhood
Knowing and Not Knowing
Dropping the Reserve?
List of Illustrations
Two Flags , 1959. Acrylic on canvas, 201.3 x 148 cm.
Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (Vienna),
on loan from the Ludwig Collection, Aachen.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Writing this book has been both a challenge and a pleasure, and a number of individuals provided information, support and encouragement to me along the way. In particular, I must thank Richard Shiff, who initially contacted me about this monograph and whose example as a scholar of Jasper Johns’s work has been invaluable. I would also like to thank Nan Rosenthal, who kindly invited me to speak on Johns’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Richard Shone, who as editor for The Burlington Magazine has also given me the opportunity to write about Johns’s work on several occasions. Richard Field, Harry Cooper, Joachim Pissarro, Paul Cornwall-Jones and Tamie Swett have also generously shared their thoughts on Johns’s work with me over the years, and Johns’s curator, Sarah Taggart, has been unfailingly helpful and very attentive to my questions. Nancy Carr was the ideal reader, taking the time not only to read my manuscript but to offer many constructive comments, and Alfred Kren and the rest of my family have shown great love and patience during this project. Lastly and most importantly, I wish to thank Jasper Johns for his support of this monograph and for making a body of work with an undeniable sense of life.
White Flag (detail, actual size), 1955. Encaustic, oil,
newsprint, and charcoal on canvas, 198.9 x 306.7 cm .
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Being an Artist

I wondered when I was going to stop “ going to be ” an artist and start being one. [1]
Painters are not public but rather are born in private. The public has made it their business; however, for the painter, art will never be public. [2]

One evening in January 1958, Catharine Rembert, an art instructor from the University of South Carolina, was on a visit to New York, waiting for a former student to join her for dinner. Jasper Johns came late, but he made up for it by jubilantly picking her up and dancing her about the room. He was celebrating an astounding success: at twenty-seven years of age, his first solo exhibition had just opened at the Leo Castelli Gallery, landing him on the cover of Art News magazine and prompting the Museum of Modern Art to purchase three of his works – a development that had occurred just that day.
The critical and commercial success of Johns’s first show is something of a legend in the history of American art, and deservedly so. At a time when the dominant mode of painting, Abstract Expressionism, emphasised expressive drama through boldly gestural brushwork and largely abstract compositions, Johns’s paintings of the American flag, targets, numbers and the alphabet marked a decided departure from convention. Despite being painted with obvious care, they seemed emotionally reticent, cool and quiet, far from the emotional fireworks then fashionable.
Abstract Expressionism’s first generation of artists, which included such legendary figures as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, had begun making art during the difficult years of the Depression and World War II. In response to these circumstances, they stressed the centrality of the artist’s self in the creation of art, and the production of a painting as an act of absolute personal authenticity. As a younger generation came on the scene in the 1950s, many of them adopted these attitudes, and soon what had been a position of existential significance began, through repetition, to seem mannered and overwrought. In this climate, Johns’s debut was both a shock and a breath of fresh air.
Whereas Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman had explained that instead of “making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life,’” he and his peers were making them “out of ourselves, out of our own feelings,” [3] and Rothko declared that he wanted viewers to weep before his canvases, Johns in contrast remarked in one of his first interviews:
It all began... with my painting a picture of an American flag. Using this design took care of a great deal for me because I didn ’ t have to design it. So I went on to similar things like the targets – things the mind already knows. That gave me room to work on other levels. For instance, I ’ ve always thought of painting as a surface; painting it in one colour made this very clear. Then I decided that looking at a painting should not require a special kind of focus like going to church. A picture ought to be looked at the same way you look at a radiator. [4]
Untitled , 1954. Oil on paper mounted on fabric,
22.9 x 22.9 cm . The Menil Collection, Houston.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Unlike most artists’ statements in New York during the 1950s, Johns’s remarks contained none of the familiar talk of doubt and angst, and his selection of subject matter appeared deliberate, thoughtful, and far removed from emotional attachments and desires. To younger artists his art seemed not so much cold and unfeeling as clear-eyed and honest after the excesses of Abstract Expressionism; after all, as artist Mel Bochner later put it, “Where is your true self at age 23?” [5] Furthermore, in selecting recognisable subjects, Johns seemed to reject prevailing abstract modes of painting, yet his subjects themselves – flags, targets, numbers – each possessed a vital characteristic of classic abstraction, namely, a flatness rendering them all but indistinguishable from the picture plane itself. His work made the polarity between abstraction and representation that had dominated debates about modern art for decades seem suddenly obsolete, opening up other ways of thinking about art’s relation to the world.
Artists began to respond to Johns’s example almost immediately. One measure of his art’s considerable impact is the fact that it affected so many different types of artists. The restrained and intellectual qualities of his paintings and his insistence on their identities as physical objects made a strong impression on such artists as Frank Stella, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and John Baldessari, and would contribute to the development of Minimal and Conceptual Art. At the same time, Johns’s careful attention to everyday images and objects – “things the mind already knows” – would also inspire Pop Art and the work of other artists, such as Chuck Close, who felt restricted by abstraction. In the years that followed, new generations of artists as diverse as Brice Marden, David Salle, Robert Gober, Kiki Smith and Terry Winters would each find something of their own in Johns’s work.
Despite the rush of attention that followed his debut at the Leo Castelli Gallery, Johns refused to relax into a comfortable signature style that might have satisfied the expectations of others. Instead, whenever something seemed settled and familiar in his practice, he questioned it, even at the risk of failure. In the five decades that have followed, Johns has remained remarkably focused considering the intense scrutiny to which he and his work have been subjected by scholars, critics, curators, dealers, collectors and other artists. A strong sense of identity has been instrumental to Johns’s ability to continue challenging himself as an artist despite what could have become overwhelming distractions. In fact, it might be said that this identity was one of Johns’s first creations as an artist.
Star , 1954. Oil, beeswax, and house paint on newspaper,
canvas, and wood with tinted glass, nails, and fabric tape,
57.2 x 49.5 x 4.8 cm . The Menil Collection, Houston.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Untitled , 1954. Construction of painted wood,
painted plaster cast, photomechanical reproductions on canvas,
glass, an d nails, 66.6 x 22.5 x 11.1 cm . Hirshhorn Museum and
Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

The Birth of an Artist

When he was forty years old, Johns attempted to explain why he had become an artist:
It had been my intention to be an artist since I was a child. But in South Carolina, where I was a child, there were no artists and there was no art, so I didn ’ t really know what that meant. I thought it meant that I would be able to be in a situation other than the one I was in. I think that was the primary fantasy. The society there seemed to accommodate every other thing I knew about, but not that. In part I think the idea of being an artist was, not a fantasy, but being out of this: since there is none of this here, if you ’ re going to be it, you ’ ll have to be somewhere else. I liked that, plus I liked to do things with my hands. [6]
Johns’s childhood desire to be somewhere else is not surprising given his upbringing, which, in his own words, “wasn’t specially cheerful.” [7] Shortly after his birth in May 1930, Johns’s mother divorced his alcoholic father, and Johns was left to be raised by a shifting cast of relatives in and around Allendale, South Carolina. The successive displacements were surely not helped by the fact that although Johns liked to do things with his hands, they were not often the things associated at that time and place with the exploits of boys. He loved to draw, but he was also apparently interested in cooking, and he had little interest in hunting, fishing or other outdoor activities.
In wanting to be an artist, Johns ended up focused on a conjunction of activity and identity. Being an artist was what one did, but the first artistic act was to make oneself an artist. The dual processes of creation – artwork and self – were no simple matter. Johns had very little contact with art in his childhood, and as much as this inaccessibility probably contributed to its appeal, it also presented a number of obstacles: Johns’s early encounters with art were less revelations than near-misses. In his paternal grandfather’s house, where he lived until the age of seven, there were a handful of paintings by his grandmother that aroused his curiosity; but she had died before his birth, and he knew very little about her. When an itinerant painter passed through town, Johns took some of his materials and attempted to paint with them, not knowing that the oil-based pigments would not mix with water. Johns’s grandfather arranged to have them returned to the painter, with whom the boy had no further contact.
Untitled , 1954. Graphite pencil on oil-stained (?) paper,
21 x 16.7 cm . Collection of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Johns’s world slowly began to expand as he reached adulthood. After three semesters of studying art with Rembert and others at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, he went at their urging to New York in 1948 and studied for a few months at the Parsons School of Design. When he ran short of money, the school’s director offered him a scholarship based on a recommendation from one of his teachers at the University of South Carolina, but added that he didn’t really deserve it. Johns thereupon refused her offer, left school, and worked at various odd jobs, from messenger boy to shipping clerk, in order to stay in New York. It was an exciting time to be there. The Abstract Expressionists were just beginning to show the ambitious and monumental paintings for which they would become best known, and Johns saw numerous works at this time, including Pollock’s dripped and poured paintings and Newman’s expansive fields of saturated colour.
Although such experiences were stimulating, Johns’s early existence in New York was nonetheless quite isolated, and he struggled with poverty. His situation changed somewhat when he was drafted into the army in 1951. While stationed at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, Johns developed an art exhibition program for soldiers before he was sent to Japan for six months. Although the Korean War was underway, Johns saw no combat; instead, he worked in Special Services, designing posters for military films and educational campaigns and working on decorations for a chapel.
Construction with Toy Piano , 1954. Graphite and collage with
to y piano, 29.4 x 23.2 x 5.6 cm . Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), Monogram , 1955-59.
Combine painting, 106.7 x 160.7 x 163.8 cm . Moderna Museet, Stockholm.
Art © Robert Rauschenberg/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Discharged in 1953, Johns returned to New York, briefly attending Hunter College. He continued looking at art and telling the few people he knew that he was going to be an artist, yet it was difficult for him to assimilate his impressions of the art he was seeing. At times the idea of making something of his own out of these impressions was so overwhelming as to seem almost impossible. Art “seemed... to exist on a different plane” from the one that Johns occupied. [8] His disorientation was profound and was in part rooted in the physical identity of art objects themselves:
I remember the first Picasso I ever saw, the first real Picasso... I could not believe it was a Picasso, I thought it was the ugliest thing I ’ d ever seen. I ’ d been used to the light coming through color slides; I didn ’ t realise I would have to revise my notions of what painting was. [9]
Against this decisive experience of painting’s materiality was Johns’s less than certain sense of himself. “I had no focus,” he later recalled, “I was vague and rootless.” [10] Exacerbating this impression was the Abstract Expressionist emphasis on the role of the self in the creation of art and a corresponding insistence upon the work of art as a direct expression of that self. As Johns later put it, “Abstract Expressionism was so lively – personal identity and painting were more or less the same, and I tried to operate the same way. But I found I couldn’t do anything that would be identical with my feelings.” [11]
Instead, Johns was caught up in a desire as intense as it was bewildering: “This image of wanting to be an artist – that I would in some way become an artist – was very strong... But nothing I ever did seemed to bring me any nearer to the condition of being an artist. And I didn’t know how to do it.” [12] In South Carolina, becoming an artist meant being in another place. In New York, Johns was in the right place to make art, but now he found himself deferring this change in his life to an indefinite time in the future, just beyond his reach.
Sometime during the first winter after he got out of the army, Johns met someone who would give him a crucial jolt out of this frustrating situation: Robert Rauschenberg, who would become the most important person in his life for the next seven years. Also a Southerner, the Texas-born Rauschenberg was almost five years older than Johns and had already had one-man exhibitions in two of New York’s most important galleries. At the time they met, Rauschenberg was regarded by many in the art world as a sort of enfant terrible for the experimental and provocative works he was making.
Rauschenberg had first gained notoriety with a series of all-white paintings that registered passing shadows and changes in light. He had also made all-black paintings of collaged newspaper covered with dark pigment that many viewers associated with nihilism and destructiveness, although Rauschenberg insisted he had intended no such thing. He had made paintings out of dirt in which grass sprouted and grew (he regularly visited the gallery where one was displayed to water it), but most infamously, he had obtained a drawing from de Kooning – perhaps the most important painter at that moment among younger artists – with the sole purpose of erasing it, simply because he wanted to “know whether a drawing can be made out of erasing.” [13] At the time he and Johns met, Rauschenberg had just begun making a series of all-red paintings that incorporated an array of collage materials, including pieces of fabric and newspaper clippings – objects from everyday life that were in his view just as important in the creation of art as the intensely private feelings favoured by the Abstract Expressionists.
Flag above White with Collage , 1955. Encaustic and
collage on canvas, 57 x 49 cm . Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel.
Gift of the artist in memory of Christian Geelhaar.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Despite his reputation for controversy, Rauschenberg was, as far as Johns was concerned, a seasoned professional. He knew where to get inexpensive studio space, and he was adept at finding ways to work only when he needed money so that he could give more time to his art. Most importantly, Rauschenberg had somehow managed to effect the transformation for which Johns yearned: he was the first “real artist” Johns had ever known, and “everything was arranged to accommodate that fact.” [14] Soon after they met, Rauschenberg talked Johns into leaving his job at a bookstore to join him in freelance work designing window displays for such upscale shops as Bonwit Teller and Tiffany’s. With the help of a mutual friend, Johns soon found a loft around the corner from Rauschenberg’s studio on Fulton Street in lower Manhattan, which at that time was home to a number of rundown buildings that had formerly housed manufacturing firms and warehouses.
Living in such spaces was technically illegal – Johns’s building had actually been condemned by the city – but it was cheap and provided ample space for living and working, far more than had been possible in the tiny apartment in the East Village that Johns had previously occupied. Moreover, at this time few artists were living as far downtown as Rauschenberg and Johns, and the distance provided a sense of privacy from the ongoing networking and gossip of the art world. This was important professionally as well as personally, as both Johns and Rauschenberg had determined to find their own way as artists, without simply following what their elders had done.
Very few works by Johns survive from the period before he became acquainted with Rauschenberg. A handful of drawings from the early 1950s are known; Johns prefers that they not be reproduced, although their titles are suggestive: Tattooed Torso , Idiot , Spanked Child . In contrast to these drawings, the modestly scaled and intimate works that Johns made during the first months of his acquaintance with Rauschenberg were poised between abstraction and representation, mingling painting, drawing, sculpture and collage.
Two Flags , 1962. Oil on canvas (two panels),
248.9 x 182.8 cm . Collection of Norman and Irma Braman.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Book , 1957. Encaustic on book and wood, 25.4 x 33 cm.
The Margulies Collection at the Warehouse, Miami.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Target with Plaster Casts, 1955. Encaustic and
collage on canvas with objects, 129.5 x 111.8 x 8.8 cm .
Collection of David Geffen, Los Angeles.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
White Flag , 1955. Encaustic, oil, newsprint, and charcoal on canvas,
198.9 x 306.7 cm . The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Figure 5 , 1955. Encaustic and collage on canvas,
44.5 x 35.6 cm . Collection the artist.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Among these, Rauschenberg especially admired Johns’s richly worked pencil drawings of dried oranges ( Illustration ), their murky forms barely emerging from the darkness of the page. Collage was the dominant process in a small work that Johns had made while still working at the bookstore, one night folding and tearing an order form and painting over the resulting grid pattern in flickering shades of green ( Illustration ). Other pieces suggested the impact of the time he spent at Rauschenberg’s studio. Just as Rauschenberg was constructing from scavenged crates paintings that verged on the sculptural in their inclusion of ledges, shelves, partitions and niches, so too did Johns make several constructed works, including Star and a shallow box containing the plaster cast of a friend’s face ( Illustration ). Painted white, they evoked the quiet poetry of Joseph Cornell, an artist whose assembled boxes he and Rauschenberg greatly admired. In the work with the plaster cast, Johns covered the upper panel with collaged papers ranging from receipts to images of an ear, a man’s torso, and a house. Similarly, in Construction with Toy Piano , Johns used a miniature musical instrument as a surface for pasted papers heavily worked with graphite; the composition was topped by the numbered keys of the toy piano, which sounded notes when struck.
A closer look at Construction with Toy Piano reveals the complexities of Johns’s growingrelationship with Rauschenberg. Its connections between making art and making music echo Music Box , a 1953 sculpture by Rauschenberg. Music Box was owned by Rachel Rosenthal, a mutual friend of Rauschenberg and Johns who had helped Johns find his loft; a small, roughly hewn wooden box, it was studded with nails and contained a few pebbles. [15] When the box was picked up and shaken, the pebbles would strike the nails and inner walls of the box, giving off sounds – like Johns’s toy piano, Rauschenberg’s work encouraged viewers to “play” it.
Furthermore, at the right side of Construction with Toy Piano is a small sticker reading “Hotel Bilbao.” Rauschenberg had incorporated such stickers in one of several collages he made while travelling in Europe and North Africa between 1952 and 1953. Johns could have easily picked up the Bilbao sticker from the materials commonly strewn about Rauschenberg’s loft, but other circumstances suggest that his appropriation was a more intimate act. Very few people in New York even knew of the existence of the works Rauschenberg brought back with him from this trip, and showing them to Johns – who became the owner of several of them – was a great gesture of trust. Construction with Toy Piano seems to be a response to Rauschenberg’s collages, most of which were meant to be handled: the entire composition of his collage with the Bilbao stickers, for example, is visible only when the collage is opened up like a greeting card. Johns’s work similarly solicited the viewer’s participation in its invitation to press the toy piano’s keys.
Johns’s use of collage in these early works also forms a tentative response to what was beginning to happen in Rauschenberg’s own practice. With Johns looking on, Rauschenberg was intensifying the physicality of his paintings by incorporating a growing range of materials and objects into his art; verging on a fusion of painting and sculpture, the resulting works would eventually be named “combines.” Some of the objects that Rauschenberg had begun including in the red paintings and the early combines, such as mirrors and light bulbs, addressed the work’s relation to its surroundings and to the viewer by encouraging participation and making the viewer, through his or her reflection in the mirrors, become a part of the work.
Rauschenberg used a straightforward, grid-based compositional structure to integrate the increasing heterogeneity of his materials – which now encompassed socks, umbrellas and, most conspicuously, the stuffed birds that he had discovered at a taxidermist’s shop in his neighborhood – and he used large swaths of dripping paint, signs of expressivity in Abstract Expressionist painting, to unite these disparate objects. In the early combines made in 1954, as his relationship with Johns intensified, personal materials – letters from his family, photographs of them, newspaper clippings about them, even drawings by artist friends – were dominant, raising the question of their status: was a letter from the artist’s mother, pasted into the early combine Charlene , more revealing of the artist’s “true self” than the drips and smears of paint many artists were using to signify this elusive entity?
Green Target , 1955. Encaustic on newspaper and
cloth over canvas, 152.4 x 152.4 cm . The Museum of
Modern Art, New York. Richard S. Zeisler Fund.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Gray Alphabets , 1956. Beeswax and oil on
newsprint and paper on canvas, 168 x 123.8 cm .
The Menil Collection, Houston.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

One early combine, Self-Made Retrospective , made an especially strong impression on Johns. Now lost, it consisted of a shallow box containing small paintings made specifically for the work, each harking back (as the title implies) to a different period of Rauschenberg’s career. There was, in miniature, a painting from the time of his 1951 show at the Betty Parsons Gallery, a white painting, a black painting, and a red painting, all created anew but individually recalling a specific moment in Rauschenberg’s past. Johns was particularly struck by the way Rauschenberg made the Parsons-era painting “from scratch,” reaching back to the way he had worked more than three years earlier to create a painting Johns found “fresh and interesting.” [16] Rauschenberg’s canny act suggested that the style in which an artist’s work was made, like its materials and colours, was by no means necessarily an expression of the artist’s self: no one style of work from the Self-Made Retrospective was more “authentic” than the other.
Johns seems to have quickly recognised that his connection with Rauschenberg was making something possible for him as an artist:
You get a lot by doing. It ’ s very important for a young artist to see how things are done. The kind of exchange we had was stronger than talking. If you do something then I do something then you do something, it means more than what you say. [17]
Johns’s comment can be understood most simply in a practical way. Making paintings, for example, involved a series of specific steps that ranged from stretching and priming the canvas to knowing how to mix paints to the desired colour and consistency – Johns knew some of this already, but he also probably learned much from Rauschenberg’s example. Johns would have also learned other skills from his window-decorating work with Rauschenberg. Using the pseudonym “Matson Jones” so their commercial work wouldn’t be confused with their artistic efforts, they had considerable success with their meticulously realistic displays, such as Old Master still lifes created in three dimensions with painted plaster fruit or a miniature winter landscape for Tiffany’s that glittered with diamonds.
Yet Johns’s comments also suggest the difficulties he must have experienced in the beginning of his relationship with Rauschenberg, namely that his lack of experience left him struggling to keep up his end of their exchange. To be sure, he contributed to Rauschenberg’s artistic efforts early on, providing the hand-lettered label to the mat framing the Erased de Kooning Drawing , and it may have also been Johns who provided the name “combine” to Rauschenberg’s new mode of working. [18] Nonetheless, in the early months of their friendship, they used Johns’s loft for their freelance assignments: Rauschenberg’s was for “serious” work.
To carry on the sort of mutual exchange described by Johns requires more or less equal footing for both participants in order for each to benefit. Before Johns and Rauschenberg met, Rauschenberg had shared such a relationship with a young artist named Cy Twombly. Drafted into the army in the fall of 1953, he was away when Johns and Rauschenberg were first becoming acquainted but would be discharged in August 1954. Twombly kept many of his works at Rauschenberg’s large Fulton Street studio, where Johns would have likely seen them, and he continued to work there sporadically until Rauschenberg had to give up his studio at the end of 1954, when Rauschenberg would move into a loft in Johns’s building after his own was slated for demolition. During this time, Twombly was beginning to explore the relationship between drawing and painting, but he was also making sculptures from found objects that he then painted white. Their quietly totemic character also has a kinship with Johns’s early white works, such as the box with the plaster cast.
Although Twombly and Rauschenberg worked separately, they shared many of the same interests, and the model of their relationship, their mutual exchange and support, may have also been important to Johns. Twombly had been with Rauschenberg on his trip to Europe and North Africa, and it may be possible to think of Johns’s incorporation of the Bilbao sticker into his own work as a sort of reference to their relationship as a model of reciprocating creativity. [19] Yet something more had to change for Johns’s exchange with Rauschenberg to reach a comparable level, and – given Johns’s understanding of what it meant to be an artist – it is no surprise that he realised the change had to involve his very identity.
Since Johns had left the army, he had been wondering “when I was going to stop ‘going to be’ an artist and start being one.” [20] Waiting for such a moment to arrive in the future had resulted in a strong feeling of being disconnected from his present situation: “At a certain point it occurred to me that I was leading my life right then: why shouldn’t I be doing what it was I was going to be doing right then?” [21] After all, he now had a growing relationship with Rauschenberg, someone supportive, open, and already accustomed to a generously reciprocating exchange with another artist. Moreover, Rauschenberg had already demonstrated by his own example that perhaps the most important thing an artist could do was to recognise that the artist he was and the art he would make were the results of conscious and deliberate decisions. The power to change was within one’s own reach.
Sometime in the fall of 1954, Johns decided it was time to take “responsibility” for himself and his work. [22] He later described the act that followed as “an attempt to destroy some idea about myself.” [23] With the exception of a few pieces that were already in the hands of others, Johns destroyed all the work he had made up to that moment. In addition to creating a new situation for himself, Johns’s destruction of his work was also an extreme enactment of a strategy that would remain integral to what followed in his art. As it turned out, taking responsibility meant something quite specific to Johns:
I decided to do only what I meant to do, and not what other people did. When I could observe what others did, I tried to remove that from my work. My work became a constant negation of impulses. [24]
Johns’s act should be understood perhaps foremost as an ethical one. His childhood desire to become an artist also involved the idea that an artist was “socially useful” as well as being “a good, exciting person.” [25] As Johns would put it many years later, he hoped as an artist “to do something a little more worthwhile than oneself.” [26] Taking advantage of the achievements of others was no way to achieve this goal.
In part, Johns’s destruction of his work may have been a gesture of respect to Rauschenberg, his partner in their ongoing professional and personal conversation, but it was perhaps also an act of independence as well. As such, the challenge it presented should not be underestimated. Johns’s decision that his art should exclude anything that had a place in another artist’s work occurred in the context of a relationship with someone whose art had begun to encompass almost everything imaginable – dripping paint, picture postcards, stuffed chickens, comic strips, and T-shirts.
Given the extremely deliberate nature of Johns’s decision to destroy his work, the act that accompanied it appeared seemingly as a bolt out of the blue. One night around this time, Johns dreamed he was painting a large American flag. He woke up, got the materials he needed, and began. A painting prompted by a dream suggests a process of sudden, impassioned creation, and the fact that he has on occasion described the painting’s support as being a sheet heightens the sense of quick and decisive action in the grips of awakened inspiration. However, this impression is contradicted by the fact that Flag is not the continuous surface that simply painting on a bedsheet would yield. Instead, Flag is constructed from three separate panels that divide the painting into a field of stars and two areas of stripes.
Tango , 1955. Encaustic and collage on canvas with music box,
109.2 x 139.7 cm . The Ludwig Collection, Aachen.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Flag , 1954-55. Encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric
mounted on plywood (three panels), 107.3 x 153.8 cm .
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of
Philip Johnson in honour of Alfred H. Barr, Jr.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

The appearance of Flag also belies the impression of a painting made spontaneously and quickly, at least as painterly process was recognised in the context of Abstract Expressionism, where broad, gestural brushstrokes suggested work made in the exalted rush of the moment. In contrast, time in Flag comes to a thickening near-halt. Johns began the painting in enamel, but when it proved too slow in drying for him to prolong a session of work, he recalled reading about the ancient technique of encaustic. He began applying melted pigmented wax to the painting’s surface, and as the wax cooled and set, it preserved its appearance at each discrete moment of its application.
Importantly, the encaustic process was not associated with any other artists Johns knew; it was something that – like the flag itself – he could consider his own. To this method Johns wed a process related to one he had been using in his earlier work and deployed scraps of newspaper and cloth, in some places sewing them to the support, in others dipping them in the hot wax in order to bind them to the cooling surface. The wax gave the painting’s surface an appearance of intensely material translucency, and the series of individually inflected and preserved marks – some almost indistinguishable from the collage support – presented a detailed, almost diaristic record of process. The resulting painting seemed the product of a slowed-down, almost painfully heightened sensitivity, suggestive of vulnerability yet directed to the most unlikely of subjects.
Deciding to take the American flag as the subject of a painting was something of a risk in the conservative 1950s. Although Senator Joseph McCarthy had fallen from grace and the red scare of the early years of the Cold War had abated somewhat by the time Johns painted Flag , the possibility of his work being construed as unpatriotic was deterrent enough for the Museum of Modern Art to drop Flag from the group of works under consideration for purchase in 1958 (instead, a trustee bought it, later donating it to the museum). To complicate matters, Johns’s biography offers some intriguing connections between the American flag and his own identity. When he was a boy, on one of the rare occasions when they were together, Johns’s father pointed out a statue in a park in Savannah, Georgia of a Revolutionary War hero named Sergeant William Jasper, who had sacrificed his own life to recover the flag when it was shot down during a battle. Johns’s father told him that they had both been named after William Jasper, and it is thus conceivable that the flag might be thought of not only as a national emblem but a personal and paternal one as well.
When interviewers first asked Johns why he had chosen to paint flags, he replied that he “intuitively [liked] to paint flags.” [27] The account of his dream only emerged publicly with increased scholarly attention to his work in the early 1960s. There is no reason to doubt Johns’s explanation, but it has interesting consequences for the understanding of his identity as an artist. Johns wanted to do “only what [he] meant to do, and not what other people did,” a stance that might be readily associated with a strong sense of decisiveness. But what Johns “meant” to do he explained in terms far from such willfulness: “It seems to me that if you avoid everything you can avoid, then you do what you can’t avoid doing, and you do what is helpless, and unavoidable.” [28]
Dreams are some of our most intensely private experiences, but they are also the result of neither conscious volition nor taste: we are “helpless” before them. Despite the flag’s status as a patriotic emblem of the United States as well as its connections to his family history, Johns’s dream seemingly takes the responsibility for the painting’s subject matter out of his hands, making it difficult to ascribe a political or personal meaning to his decision to make a painting of an American flag. The difficulty of pinning down Johns’s intentions is not surprising, considering that he had decided that he did not want his work to be “an exposure of [his] feelings,” nor did he think himself capable of making such work, as the Abstract Expressionists claimed to have done. [29] What else might be possible in a work of art, if the expression of one’s self were excluded? That work could be expressive without being self -expressive was one possibility, suggested by one of the first works Johns made after Flag : Target with Plaster Casts .
In selecting a target as his subject, Johns focused on a motif that shared several characteristics with the flag. To begin with, it was utterly familiar, an everyday image everyone knows. Secondly, it was composed of a few simple geometric elements that would allow Johns to devote considerable attention to the application of paint without compromising its legibility. Finally, it was flat, so that it elided the usual conflict between abstraction and representation: there is little practical distinction between a target at which one takes aim and a painting of one.
The plaster casts were another matter. Johns had used a plaster cast of a friend’s face in the early work discussed above, and he had made a number of others that he kept around his studio (traditionally, artists might keep such casts in order to study anatomy or draw from them, and the casts may have also been of use in Johns’s freelance decorating work with Rauschenberg). Initially, Johns had decided that his painting of a target would be topped by a row of wooden blocks that, when pressed by the viewer, would sound notes – a sort of large-scale reprise of Construction with Toy Piano . When he had difficulty figuring out how to make this function practically, he simply changed his plan. Atop the target are a series of wooden boxes with hinged lids that can be closed and opened to reveal their contents: plaster casts of body parts, including a breast, a penis, and an ear, each painted in a different colour.
Johns has explained that he painted the casts because he was concerned that their fragmented forms would appear morbid if they were realistically painted in flesh tones or left white. Nonetheless, these components remain a complex psychological element of Target with Plaster Casts , as they do in Target with Four Faces , which Johns made shortly thereafter. Here, the faces – tinted an orange-tan tone distantly related to the colour of flesh – are cut off below the eyes, so that only their lower halves are visible. The impression is disturbing, although Johns claimed that he only cut the casts because they wouldn’t fit into the boxes whole.
Target with Four Faces , 1955. Encaustic on newspaper and
cloth over canvas surmounted by four tinted-plaster faces
in wood box with hinged front, Overall, with box open:
85.3 x 66 x 7.6 cm . The Museum of Modern Art,
New York. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert C. Scull.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Canvas , 1956. Encaustic and collage on wood
and canvas, 76.3 x 63.5 cm . Collection the artist.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Drawer , 1957. Encaustic on canvas
with objects, 77.5 x 77.5 cm . Rose Art Museum,
Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Asked to explain Target with Plaster Casts , Johns denied any particular emotional content to this work, saying simply that he was “concerned with the approach and distance and contact with the painting.” [30] Although Target with Plaster Casts and Target with Four Faces have become too valuable as works of art to continue fulfilling Johns’s intention that the viewer be able to open and close the lids of the boxes, the interaction of vision and touch, distance and intimacy, are central to these works’ meaning. It has not escaped the notice of most viewers that to engage with these works as Johns intended means putting oneself in the line of fire by stepping in front of the target, a moment of vulnerability and exposure usually associated with artists rather than viewers. Coming near enough to operate the boxes is a risk to a viewer seen by others, but it also creates a sense of intimacy with the work that renders it more difficult to see it as a target at which one “takes aim” by looking at it. Instead, a viewer stands at arm’s length, as Johns did when he made it, looking at parts of the body normally only glimpsed in very intimate situations.
Such situations are often erotic, but they are also intrinsic to the process by which Johns himself made the casts to begin with, enlisting friends as models. We see the positive impressions of a negative process of casting that also required losing sight of the whole in order to focus intensely on a single part. In doing so, Johns displaced a moment of great physical and visual intimacy from the realm of artist to that of the viewer.
Although Johns continued to make paintings of targets, usually in a single colour, he no longer incorporated plaster casts into their compositions. Target with Plaster Casts and Target with Four Faces remain somewhat unique in Johns’s works of the 1950s in the sense of unease they provoke in most viewers, but Johns continued to explore the questions they raised about the relationship between looking and making, artist and viewer, vision and touch, in other ways. To understand the crux of Johns’s fascination, it is important to recall his early experiences with art as a viewer – for example, seeing his first Picasso. If for Johns-the-viewer the first glimpse of a Picasso was an experience of intense, even ugly, physicality, it should perhaps come as no surprise that the birth of Johns-the-artist lay in paintings that stressed the materiality of their surfaces even as their conventional meaning remained irresolvable. Instead of having works borne out of personal feeling, Johns was making works borne out of an equally personal experience, one that defined feeling as also existing on a physical level, creating an experience that the viewer could share.
In Johns’s first years of maturity as an artist, a painting’s identity as an actual, physical object was of overriding importance to him. It was the conduit of the relationship between the artist and his viewers, and it was also what provided both with the experience of being fully present, in one particular place, at one particular moment – the “right then” when Johns was able, simply, to be an artist. Painting subjects such as targets and flags emphasised the flat plane of the painting’s surface, and these were soon joined by stencilled numbers and letters. Like the plaster casts, the stencils were part of his studio’s usual paraphernalia, nothing special, he insisted. Johns made paintings of single numbers and occasionally arranged his stencils to forms words that, usually placed near the bottom of the painting’s edge, provided its title. One of the earliest of these, The , is perhaps the perfect verbal equivalent of Johns’s motifs; as a part of speech, the definite article exists only in relation to the names of things to which it provides stress and individuation: the flag, the target, the painting. [31] Johns also used stencils to create grid compositions that recall his small green collage of torn paper, but now he used numbers and letters in sequence to determine the format of the grid: eleven by eleven squares for zero through nine ( Illustration ) or twenty-seven by twenty-seven for A through Z ( Illustration ), including one blank square to mark the end of the sequence.
In many of these paintings, Johns also drew attention to the material support of the underlying canvas by routinely leaving the bottom edge of the composition unpainted so that the bare canvas was visible as a ragged border. He also continued to use encaustic. The series of careful touches to the canvas intensified the painting’s literal, physical presence, bestowing upon it an undeniable beauty that sometimes seems almost poignantly at odds with the carefully conceived subject matter and denial of conventional forms of self-expression.
These qualities were also characteristic of Johns’s drawings, which as early as the drawings of dried oranges had evinced a great facility not so much for skillfully rendering objects as for endowing a surface with a subtle yet almost palpably sensuous physical presence. Attentiveness to paper and the materials and means by which marks could be made upon it were Johns’s primary motivations in drawing. Although he occasionally used drawings to sketch out ideas for paintings, more frequently he chose motifs that were already familiar from his own paintings.
Painting’s identity as a physical object also prompted Johns to reduce the colours of his palette, painting American flags in the usual range of red, white and blue, and the targets in the three primary colours. Not surprisingly, he also favored working in monochrome; as he explained to a journalist, “I’ve always thought of painting as a surface; painting it in one colour made this very clear.” [32] Thus, one of the first paintings he made after Flag was the very large White Flag ; Green Target soon followed Target with Plaster Casts and Target with Four Faces ; and Tango was painted in shades of blue. Soon, grey became Johns’s favored colour for exploring the object nature of painting. Grey was neutral and stable. Unlike other colours or even black and white, which to Johns also seemed to lead viewers toward a preordained response, grey was less likely to provoke a specific emotional reaction. Instead, grey’s very reticence encouraged viewers to experience the painting not as a “picture” but as a thing .
As an object, a painting was not merely a surface. Canvas was stretched over a wooden support: a stretched canvas has a front, but it also has a back and sides. Making a painting out of separate canvases, such as Johns did with Flag , drove this point home. He explored it in other works as well, often painting the sides of the canvas’s stretcher, for example, so that the painting “continues” around the edges. In Gray Rectangles , the titular geometric shapes have been cut into the painting’s surface, while Drawer suggests the possibility of a literal space behind the picture plane. In Shade , a lowered window shade doubles the canvas surface, concealing what’s underneath as well as providing another surface on which to paint. Similarly, Canvas presents two stretched canvases painted grey, placed front-to-front so that the backside of one is shown to the viewer.
Any expressive qualities enter such paintings not through obvious references to the artist but through the physical properties of the work itself. What is on the front of the canvas whose reverse we see in Canvas , or on the front of the canvas it obscures, is unknowable, as is whatever is behind the titular Shade , and the drawer of Drawer will never open. Johns’s Book and his Newspaper are likewise unreadable. In such works it is difficult to escape a sensation of eternal abiding melancholy, a sort of endless waiting for something that will likely never happen. As much as anything, the feeling of loneliness that these works provoke in many viewers serves as a potent reminder of how much we have come to rely on the artist as a source of meaning. Beginning with these first mature works, Johns’s art instead leaves us to come to terms with the physical fact of his paintings’ existence on our own.
Tennyson , 1958. Encaustic and collage on canvas, 186.7 x 122.6 cm.
Collection of the Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines.
Purchased with funds from the Coffin Fine Arts Trust.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Numbers in Color , 1958-59. Encaustic and
newspaper on canvas, 168.9 x 125.7 cm .
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Flag on Orange Field II, 1958.
Encaustic on canvas, 137.1 x 92 cm . Private collection.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
White Numbers , 1958. Encaustic on canvas,
71.1 x 55.8 cm . Mildred and Herbert Lee collection.
Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Private and Public

Johns’s attentiveness to the relationship between the artist and the viewer is rooted in part in the very circumstances by which he became an artist, a very private situation in which the roles of artist and viewer continually doubled back on one another in his relationship with Rauschenberg. Looking and making, making and looking became almost inseparable in their dialogue with each other and became in fact the virtual subject of Johns’s first mature works. It was a very limited subject, both in the sense of being narrowly defined against all the things Johns could not or did not want his work to be and also in the sense of being developed under the most intimate of circumstances. As Johns later insisted, “Painters are not public but rather are born in private. The public has made it their business; however, for the painter, art will never be public.” [33]
As Johns embarked on his life as an artist, Rauschenberg was by his side. After he moved into Johns’s building, they saw each other almost daily. Temperamentally, they were opposites. Rauschenberg embraced the world, was willing to let almost everything into his art, and moved with friendly, easy enthusiasm through the world around him, while Johns was quieter, more reflective but also more critical in his thinking. According to Rauschenberg, Johns was jarred by his companion’s “sensual excessiveness,” [34] and in fact Rauschenberg’s combines soon became less personal and sentimental in their content, a possible result of Johns’s own turn away from personally revealing subject matter.
As determined as Johns was to keep out of his work anything he associated with other artists, he still included indications of his artistic exchange with Rauschenberg in his own work, as Rauschenberg began to refer to John’s work in his. Some scholars think that Johns’s Flag may be in part a response to Yoicks , one of Rauschenberg’s red paintings with striped fabric, and in turn Rauschenberg soon made a work called Bed after Johns made Flag . Most of Bed ’s surface consists of a quilt that Rauschenberg attached to a stretcher one day when – in an explanation strikingly similar to Johns’s account of Flag ’s creation – Rauschenberg woke up wanting to paint but, lacking materials, decided to use his quilt instead, adding a pillow as the finishing touch to the work. In turn, Johns’s Tennyson , a solemn grey painting, features an expanse of doubled canvas that Johns folded back in much the same way that one turns down the sheets before getting into bed; the painting is named for the Victorian poet whose works include an elegy to a recently departed friend that is also an impassioned paean to male friendship. [35]
Johns and Rauschenberg knew each other’s work and interests so well that they could trade ideas, each able to guess what would benefit the other. Out of curiosity, Johns tried his hand at making a “Rauschenberg” or two, and Rauschenberg asked for the chance to paint a stripe on one of Johns’s flag paintings (predictably, he left an unwanted drip). Rauschenberg brought home a map of the United States for Johns to paint – an apt response to Johns’s predilection for stencils and such familiar images as flags – while Johns provided a solution to a combine including a stuffed goat that had long troubled Rauschenberg: why not, suggested Johns, put the painting flat on the floor and the goat on top of it, as if being set out to pasture. The resulting work,

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