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Jasper Johns

Multiplied but individual, banal in subject while specific in its impact, the work of Jasper Johns radiates its importance.
How do we calculate the meaning of such art? The immediacy of his imagery communicates vitality and significance to us, the audience. The process of communication implies that the artist and the viewer have a contract of mutual discovery.  Signs are one way to make us contribute to the meaning of an image.

image: Jasper Johns ' Figure 7' 1969 planographic National Gallery of Australia.

Jasper Johns ' Figure 7' 1969 planographic National Gallery of Australia. click to enlarge

Sometimes artists invent their own language: for Monet time and change could be expressed by light falling onto haystacks, Rouen cathedral or waterlilies. For Jasper Johns, what is signified by an electric lightbulb hanging on a long flex, a coathanger, or by the continuing set of Arabic numerals 0 to 9? As well as their formal use in Johns’s art, the objects or concepts must stand for themselves. They might also spark other ideas a moment in one’s life, a universal means of exchange, a grasping for significance amid the commonplaces of everyday life.
When we think of the art of Jasper Johns, a few symbols come to mind: the American flag, the numerals 0 to 9, alphabets, ale cans, or abstract fields. The artist’s strategy is to reduce everything to signs which can stand for certain basic concepts of culture, such as nationality, reading, writing, leisure and lifestyles. His visual signs are those of the American dream, however transformed — flags, letters, numbers, targets, even the drinking of beer. Johns tries to employ the form rather than its content, but visual signs are not neutral.
The most obvious example of Johns subverting the loaded imagery of a culture appears in his use of the American flag. He alters the red and blue of Old Glory to grey and orange, multiplies it in black and white, or just duplicates the original. The shock and displacement of such acts have only a feeble echo in other societies where the flag is not worshipped in a school ritual enacted daily by every child from the age of five: ‘I swear allegiance to the American flag …’ The power of such a symbol was recognised by Johns as an American artist from the 1950s onwards, and his transgressions therefore seem more significant in his native United States than they would in the rest of the world.
Johns is more than American in his art. Alphabets, numbers, flags, body parts all these are touchstones, familiar points of reference from our childhood and education. They are part of the process of learning and naming things, as if by repetition we ensure reality. Letters and numerals are abstract concepts which require material referents to make sense: 2 apples + 3 apples = 5 apples. As children, we chant the alphabet to order our experience, to make our ‘natural’ spoken language concrete in its written form.
Similarly, the flag is shorthand for the nation, patriotism and history. How does its meaning change when it is reproduced in two dimensions? Instead of flapping, moving or limp fabric, Johns creates a flat surface, frozen into a 2-D rectangle, perfect but transformed. Doubt enters into the process: from the flag’s replication, from its transmogrification into paint, ink or lead, from changing its colours.
In 196869 Johns made two major versions of the Numerals –9, one series printed in black, another in luminous colours. Each carries a weight of artistic and cultural meaning. The black numbers have sombre, albeit decorative patterning which allows playful variations on the theme. But numbers imply order: they have arithmetic, mathematical and financial meanings beyond the purely symbolic or visual.
Unusually for Johns, numbers also stand for a universal language beyond any local context. The artist imbues the rainbow roll printing of his Color numerals 0–9 with specific images, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa incorporated into his famous lithograph Figure 7. How is it that an electric printing of purple to orange inks can carry the weight of Western culture and the Italian Renaissance so lightly, even so happily?
Green, orange and purple are secondary hues on the colour wheel, the result of mixing the primaries red, blue and yellow. In a 1974 series of seven lithographs based on his paintingsculpture Wax casts, Johns revels in clarity and obscurity: a baby ‘this is your nose’. Stencilled letters label the numbered forms, so that they seem almost official, a chart of medical or physical certainties.
Then he transgresses again, by reversal and by flooding each image with the pleasures of saturated, arbitrary colour. The body, a fundamental subject for artists, is divided into Knee, Leg, Torso, and so on. Reversal is part of the printing process, and here it serves to slow down the viewer’s experience. One must stand in front of the work a little longer to decipher the mirror-image stencil letters. Johns provides no clues about why the leg is orange, not yellow.

image: Jasper Johns 'Light bulb' 1969 lead relief National Gallery of Australia
Jasper Johns 'Light bulb' 1969 lead relief National Gallery of Australia. click to enlarge  

Fascinated with the physical presence of paint, Wax, ink and paper, the materials of our culture, Johns also reworked the base material of lead. Lead is a fundamental metal, the softest and one of the most easily manipulated. From medieval times, alchemists have tried to transmute lead into gold with the philosopher’s stone but it can never happen. In his series of Lead Reliefs of 1969-70, Johns delights in the contradiction between the metal and its uses. In all his lead multiples, from High school days to the pendant Light bulb, the artist plays with the substance while pondering its qualities.
Jasper Johns began his fine art career as a painter and sculptor. In fact, his works have always blurred the boundary between art of two and three dimensions. Born in 1930, Johns is heir to the American Abstract Expressionist generation Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. By the 1950s, younger artists thought that abstraction had served its purpose. For Andy Warhol, it was the era of brand-names: BriIIo pads, Campbell’s soups, Marilyn Monroe. For Robert Rauschenberg, it became the complex intermingling of photographic images, from Bonnie and Clyde to Martin Luther King and the space race.
Johns understood the age differently. He read the ciphers of his times in universal terms. 0 through 9 meant a general American, a European or a world system of signs which underlay any particular interpretation. Just as the American flag of a specific kind of patriotism could stand for its opposite in burning it, so could the Latin alphabet mean confusion rather than clarity when Johns superimposes all the letters upon one another, and prints the image without ink in the embossing titled Alphabet of 1969.
He also uses a multiplicity of means. From lithography to etching, from lead reliefs to embossing, the artist has employed high-tech or traditional printmaking techniques for his ends. In the American renaissance of printmaking of the 1960s and 1970s, Jasper Johns chose the master firms, ULAE and Gemini, for his printmaking career. The exemplary level of skill in etching and lithography, shown clearly in such works as Bent ‘Blue’ 1971, is unmatched. The sheer beauty that results when many images are printed onto paper is stunning. When Johns called for layers of blacks or of translucent colour to appear one over the other, the skilled craftspeople outdid each other to make them.
For all modern artists, the dialogue between a unique object and its reproduction in multiple is a central argument about cultural authenticity. Multiple copies of one image, such as the original print (etchings, lithographs, screenprints, books) serve to disseminate the artist’s idea. They are democratic an edition of 100 should cost perhaps 1% of a painting or drawing. Prints and multiples, at their best, spread the artist’s message and manner. From the democratic heyday of the 1960s onwards, Pop artists tried to demonstrate that their art was not exclusive, not aimed only at the rich and the bourgeois.
For Johns, the enterprise of art has to combine the anarchism, humour and alienation of Dada (Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters) with the emotional gestures and materiality of Abstract Expressionism (Pablo Picasso seen through the eyes of Jackson Pollock). Johns separates himself from the work, and thereby affects the encounter between the audience and the art. When you look at Jasper Johns’s work, how much do you need to know about the artist, his past career, about American Pop and 20th-century modernism, or indeed about the idea of art? It might be possible to look at his work through innocent or unknowing eyes, but the impact of colour, plane and surface is mediated by our experiences, by reflection, and by knowledge. Johns is now in his sixties, a living artist who has some effect on the reception of his work the artist, however, does not stand for his art.
As with all visual art encountered directly, the primary value is sensory. How does Johns’s imagery fall upon our eyes and our minds? It has a limited palette of subjects, as well as colours. Why are we enthralled by his insistence on so few themes? It may be because the possibilities seem endless. When we contemplate his variations on a theme, they appear joyous and open-ended. Overall however, the works assert certain values coolness, distance, anonymity, even estrangement.
What does Jasper Johns do in his art? He transforms everyday experience into another language for his viewers. If written, spoken or visual symbols are the tools of communication, then Johns is a shaman: he manages to change the banal into a special experience. By hammering upon a single note like a contemporary composer, by observing minute changes, by repetition and variation, by showing how light or colour alters one’s view, and by revealing the elements involved in seeing, Johns shows his mastery of the strategies of modern art.

Christine Dixon
International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books

Further information will be added to this site as the National Gallery proceeds with its research and documentation.

Last updated January 2017