2. Jasper Johns: major motifs

Jasper Johns, American born 1930

from The Mind and the Mirror:

exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of (North) American Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2021/22

 

 

Jasper Johns is widely considered the foremost living North American artist. 

 

A large retrospective planned for his 90th birthday by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art was delayed by Covid-19 and has just closed.

 

The works below were on display in 2021 and 2022 at one museum or the other.

 

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The art historical context of Johns’ work.

 

Jasper Johns was one of a group of artists working from the mid-1950’s onwards who moved the techniques and forms of art away from the conventions of Abstract Expressionism into the vastness and freedom of the world as they found it. 

 

 

Johns and his colleagues took a lead from Marcel Duchamp’s emphasis on the primacy of the mind over the emotions in the creation of art; and also from his use of ‘ready-mades’.

 

Keeping to the all-over-canvas brushwork of the Abstract Expressionists, they removed the idea that the artist and his/her canvas are indissoluble, that the artist is in that canvas.

 

 

 

False Start, 1959, oil on canvas. 

Private collection loan to the 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930.

 

 

 

From his work and that of Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol spring the several -isms which exist today in the art world: Conceptualism; Pop; minimalism; painting as sculpture and vice versa.

 

 

 

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Motifs

 

The artist uses many motifs in isolation or in combination.

Among the most prominent are

 

maps, numbers, targets and cross hatching, paving stones, and an abstract shape called ‘The green angel’.  Lettering is also important to Johns; as is the human body in piece parts. 

 

 

Cross-hatching

 

In 1972, Jasper Johns first introduced the cross-hatched pattern here on the left of this four-panel work.

The flagstone pattern in the centre he first showed in 1967.  On the right, cast-wax body parts.

 

 

 

Untitled, 1972, oil, encaustic and collage on canvas with objects. 

Loan from Museum Ludwig, Cologne to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

The artist’s interest in this cross-hatch pattern may be instructive.

 

Jasper Johns says he saw the cross-hatch only for a moment on a passing car (from the website of the Art Institute of Chicago).

 

“I only saw it for a second, but knew immediately that I was going to use it. It had all the qualities that interest me—

 

literalness, repetitiveness, an obsessive quality, order with dumbness, and the possibility of a complete lack of meaning.”

 

These are the artist’s definition of the qualities he seeks for his work:

literal, repetitive, orderly, dumb, and with a complete lack of meaning. 

 

 

 

Dancers on a Pine, 1979, oil on canvas with partially painted wood frame, with objects. 

Collection of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

The meaning of Jasper Johns’ work

 

The artist has rarely  discussed his work and gave no guidance to the Philadelphia Art Museum or the Whitney for this exhibition.

 

Art scholarship has pointed to the overriding philosophy of the artist’s work: 

separating the the object depicted from that object’s customary meaning.

   

Curatorial scholarship has tended to interpret this as meaning that the artist is emphasizing that what we understand is governed by our perception

 

which changes with every view of an object whose attributes change, even if only somewhat. 

 

 

 

 

Despite the description that the artist gave for his attachment to the cross hatch pattern,

scholarship has made large claims for the work of Jasper Johns:

 

that he changed what we think of as art and that Andy Warhol’s art, as an example, would not have been possible without Jasper Johns.

 

 

Between the Clock and the Bed, pastel on paper, 1980.

Private collection loan to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

All of this is moot for me for two reasons:

I do not think meaning can be alienated so easily from the object to which it is attached:  a flag is a flag whether it is painted neon orange or red, white and blue.

 

Meaning – layers of meaning, even – accretes over many generations and with the conscious and unconscious collusion of millions of people.

 

For an individual to play with meaning is a pointless desolation.

 

Secondly, Johns’ work, as masterful as are the processes he uses and as beautiful some of his images , tends towards the reductive, repetitive and boring.

 

In the artist’s words:

 

literal, repetitive, orderly, dumb, and with a complete lack of meaning. 

 

 

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A second source of inspiration for the cross-hatch pattern seems to be the coverlet of a  bed in a self-portrait from the early 1940s of Edvard Munch(1863-1944, Norwegian) called ‘Between The Clock and the Bed’.

 

 

 

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Between the Wall and the Bed, 1981, encaustic on canvas on three panels. 

Jasper Johns, American born 1930.  MOMA, NY

 

 

 

Jasper Johns also used the cross-hatch pattern in the context of his involvement with Japan where he was posted as a soldier in 1953-54.

 

He revisited after that.  In 1972, he began a series of cross-hatch works called ‘Usuyuki’ meaning light snow in Japanese.

 

 

 

 

Usuyuki, 1977-78, encaustic and collage on canvas. 

The Cleveland Museum of Art loan to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

 

Usuyuki, 1979-81, oil on canvas.

Private collection loan to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

 

Usuyuki, 1982, encaustic on caucus. 

Loan from the Sezon Museum of Modern Art, Nagano, Japan to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

Literal, repetitive, orderly, dumb, and with a complete lack of meaning.  

 

The question then is why work which incorporates meaninglessness and is underlain by such reductive values

 

has been evaluated as the most important to have been produced on the north American continent in the last 60 years. 

 

The most important! 

 

This question interests me far more than the work I saw because it seems to speak to one large imbalance which besets our civilization:

 

the dominance of the intellect and its mind games over all other aspects of human life.

 

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Among the earliest objects the artist painted were flags and maps.

 

The artist has repeatedly said he has no nationalistic interest in either symbol.

 

 

 

In the Whitney during the exhibtion, 2021/22

 

 

Flags

 

The story is that one night in 1954, Jasper Johns dreamed that he painted the American flag.

 

The next day he set out to obtain the materials to do so. 

 

 

Flag, 1954-55, encaustic, oil and collage on fabric mounted on wood.

   MOMA, NY loan to the 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930.

 

 

 

 

Flag Above White with Collage, 1955, encaustic and collage on canvas. 

Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland loan to the 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930.

 

 

 

 

White Flag, 1955, encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric; three panels.

Metropolitan Museum loan to the 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930.

 

 

 

 

Flag, 1957, oil and graphite pencil on paper.

  Private collection loan to the 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930.

 

 

 

 

Flag on Orange Field, 1957, encaustic on canvas. 

Loan from the Museum Ludwig Cologne loan to the 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930.

 

 

 

 

Three Flags, 1958, encaustic on canvas, three panels.  Jasper Johns, American born 1930. 

Whitney Museum of (North) American Art

 

 

 

 

Two Flags, 1962, oil on canvas. 

Private collection loan to the 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930.

 

 

 

 

 

Flag, 1965, encaustic and collage on canvas.

  Private collection loan to the 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930.

 

 

 

 

Flags, 1965, oil on canvas with object.  Collection of the artist

 

 

 

Two Flags, 1985, ink on plastic, 

Jasper Johns, American born 1930. Whitney Museum of (North) American Art

 

Targets

 

 

 

Target with Four Faces, 1955, encaustic on newspaper on cloth over canvas surmounted by four tinted-plaster faces in wood box with hinged front. 

Jasper Johns, American born 1930.  MOMA, NY

 

The small casts are made from the face of the artist Rachel Rosenthal.  The hinged plank opens to reveal nine wooden boxes. They hold  models of dismembered body parts: face, hand, ear, penis.

 

 

 

 

Target, 1958, oil and collage on canvas.  Collection of Jasper Johns

 

 

 

 

Target, 1966, collage and encaustic on canvas. 

Loan from the MMK Museum fur Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

Target, 1992, encaustic and collage on canvas. 

Loaned by Larry Gagosian to the 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930.

 

An image similar to one made in 1959 which was lost in a fire at the Governor’s Mansion, NY in 1963.

 

 

 

 

Maps

 

The artist has denied any interest in nationalistic associations with maps of the US.

 

 

 

Map, 1961, oil on canvas.

Loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930.

 

 

 

 

 

Map, 1963, encaustic and collage on canvas. 

Private collection loan to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930.

 

 

 

 

Two Maps, 1965, encaustic and collage on campus.

Jasper Johns, American born 1930. Whitney Museum of (North) American Art

 

 

 

 

Map, 1965, charcoal and oil on canvas.

Private collection loan to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930.

 

 

 

 

Two maps, 1989, encaustic on canvas.

Private collection loan to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

 

Numbers

 

Johns has painted or sculpted or made prints of numbers in more than 170 works using many different media and formats.

 

 

 

 

Figure 0, 1959, encaustic and collage on canvas. 

Ludwig Museum, Koblenz loan to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

 

Thermometer, 1959, oil on canvas on wood with objects.

Seattle Art Museum loan to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

Ten Numbers, 1960, charcoal and graphite pencil on paper.

The Cleveland Museum of Art loan to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

0-9, 1961, charcoal, pastel and graphite pencil on paper.

Private collection loan to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

 

0-9, 1961, plaster.  Collection of Jasper Johns

 

 

 

 

Figures 0-9, 1969, ten lithographs.  

Private collection loan to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

Numbers, 2006, ink and crayon on paper mounted on paper.  

Private collection loan to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

 

Numbers, 2007 (cast 2008). 

Glenstone loan to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

 

0-9, 2009-12, copper.  

Private collection loan to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

 

 

Paving Stones

 

 

 

Wall Piece, 1968, oil and collage on canvas, three panels.  Collection of Jasper Johns.

 

 

 

 

Harlem Light, 1967, oil and collage on canvas.

 Seattle Art Museum on loan to a retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930.

 

 

 

 

End Paper, 1976, oil on canvas.

 MOMA, NY loan to a retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930.

 

 

 

Green Angel

 

 

The artist has dedicated 30 paintings to this shape, called the ‘Green Angel’ after its first appearance in his work.

 

Following his normal usage, Johns has declined to say what the source of this shape is.

 

 

 

Green Angel, 1990, encaustic and sand on canvas.

Loan from Walker Art Center, Minneapolis to the 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930.

 

 

 

Untitled, 1991, encaustic on canvas.

Private collection loan to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

 

Untitled, 1992-94, encaustic on canvas.

Private collection loan to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

 

Untitled, 1990, oil on canvas.

Private collection loan to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

Body Parts

 

The only figuration to appear in Johns’ work are ghosts:    the silhouette of Queen Elizabeth II and her husband formed by the handle of a jug;

 

 

Untitled, 2017, acrylic on canvas.

Private collection loan to the 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

 

and the shadow of a boy, sometimes a young man. 

They appear in a number of works, large and small.

 

 

Untitled, 2012, monotype.

Private collection loan to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

Untitled, 2020, ink on plastic.

Private collection loan to a 2021/22 retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930

 

 

 

Piece parts of the human body, however, appear in a number of works:  painted, printed or in cast wax.

 

 

Intaglio, trial proof, 1998

 Private collection on loan to a retrospective of the work of Jasper Johns, American born 1930.

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “2. Jasper Johns: major motifs

  1. Thanks for looking, Luisa. His stock is so high here that one has to wonder what this soulless work, unrelated to our lives or our history, let alone our ecology, says about our civilization!

    Sarah

  2. It goes to show how far the art world elite is from the rest of us. They live in ivory towers. At least he achieved his goal. (yawn) hahahah Don’t worry, the pendulum will swing back the other way eventually.

  3. I agree with you: this is an industry: someone produces the goods; someone else explains it with many words, full of theory; someone else sells it, making sure that it is displayed in prestigious musuems. The cycle is endlessly repeated so that the goods do not lose their value.

    Our role is to go along with it, grateful for being allowed a little peek……Thanks for looking. Sarah

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