gigatos | January 7, 2022
Jasper Johns (Augusta, May 15, 1930) is an American painter and sculptor considered one of the major exponents of New Dada along with the artist Robert Rauschenberg.
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Johns was born in 1930 in Augusta (Georgia), but grew up in Allendale (South Carolina), followed by his grandparents and uncles following the divorce of his parents. Regarding this period of his life, he would later say, “where I grew up there were no artists and no art, so I didn”t really know what that meant. I thought it meant that I was going to be in a different situation than I was.” In an interview given in the early sixties, he says that at the age of three he began to draw without stopping, and that at the age of five he decided to become an artist. He studied in Columbia (South Carolina) until the fourth year of elementary school, then moved between several states with his mother, stepfather and his half-brothers, finishing his higher education in Sumter (South Carolina). Between 1947 and 1948 he attended the University of South Carolina for a total of three semesters, then at the invitation of his own art teachers he moved to New York where in 1949 he studied at the Parsons School of Design for a semester. He then worked as a courier and as a salesman.
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In the early fifties Johns served in the army and was also sent to the field in Sendai (Japan) in the context of the Korean War, returning to New York in 1953. Thanks to a scholarship for veterans he enrolled at Hunter College, but following an accident that happened to him on the first day he left his studies. Between 1953 and 1954 he worked at Marboro Books. Thanks to the writer Suzi Gablick he has the opportunity to meet the artist Robert Rauschenberg, with whom was born a long historical relationship of friendship and also of mutual artistic influence. In 1954 Johns also met the composers Morton Feldman and John Cage (with whom he returned to Japan a few years later) and the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham.
Towards the middle of the decade the artist decides to destroy all his previous works (he would even buy back the ones he had sold in order to get rid of them) and only four of them manage to save themselves: this action corresponds to the beginning of a new period for the artist, of a radical change and a rebirth. He therefore conceives an original and personal artistic style, as opposed to the gestural and energetic style of the so-called Abstract Expressionism, which will contribute to the birth of movements such as Pop Art, Minimalism and Conceptual Art. He realizes the first Target with Four Faces, the first series of Numbers 1, 2, 5 and 7, and the first White Flag which will be followed over the years by many other versions decomposed, inverted, multiplied or desaturated in the forms of paintings, prints and drawings. He makes use of icons and clear and impersonal subjects in order to concentrate on the technique of realization and manual workmanship of the work.
In 1955, together with Rauschenberg, he founded the company Matson Jones – Custom Display within which the two carried out the activity of designers of store windows, working for example for Tiffany & Co. and Bonwit Teller the following year. As part of one of these displays, White Flag is exhibited.
In May 1957 Johns participates in a group exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery, then in 1958 at the same gallery exhibits again his works in a solo exhibition. Alfred Barr, the first director of the Moma – Museum of Modern Art in New York, is impressed by Target with Plaster Casts (1955), although before being exhibited it was the subject of debate and criticism because it was considered too provocative to be exhibited in a museum. The New York museum therefore purchased three of the artist”s works. Target with Four Faces appears on the cover of the famous magazine Artnews. In the same 1958 the works of Johns are exposed for the first time in Europe on the occasion of the XXIX Biennial of Venice. The artist begins therefore to impose itself on the American and European artistic scene; in 1959 it exposes in Paris and Milan. Always in 1958 he realizes the first sculptures in metal, that is Flashlight I and Lightclub I.
After the success of his solo exhibition at Castelli”s in 1958, Johns decided to embark on a new path, the beginning of which was represented by the work False Start (1959) where the artist passed from the technique of encaustic to that of oil painting, in favor of a multi-layered distribution of color, with more inconstant brushstrokes. Barr was perplexed by this new work because the distribution of color was very similar to the art of Abstract Expressionism, to which Johns had always been hostile.
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At the beginning of the sixties, the artist began to be interested in the motif of the map of the United States (which was also the subject of various subsequent versions such as the flag) and in the theme of human bodyprints; he also began to devote himself to working with bronze in sculpture. In 1961 he travels to Europe for the first time on the occasion of the exhibition of his works at the Galerie Rive Droite in Paris and later participates in the exhibition Le Nouveau Réalisme à Paris et à New York held in the same gallery. Unlike the previous period, his art becomes prone to autobiography, more complex and disorienting. In many paintings he uses extensively the color gray (also in homage to the painter René Magritte), such as in Canvas (1956) and Gray Alphabets (1956) in which dominates a melancholic level of expression.
In the works of this decade he more often inserts lines, color scales or thermometers that render the idea of measurement, as can be perceived in Periscope (1963). During these years he collaborates with the writer and art curator Frank O”Hara with whom he organizes a collection of images and poems, and also cites one of his poems in the work In Memory of My Feelings – Frank O”Hara (1961). In 1963 he participated in the Pop Art USA exhibition at the Oakland Art Museum in California and became one of the founding heads of the Foundation for Contemporany Performance Arts Inc. In 1964 he created his largest work to date which, according to Kirk Varnedoe, constitutes a compendium of all his artwork.
In the same year he held a retrospective with over 170 of his works at the Jewish Museum in New York, then repeated in England and California, and participated in the XXXII Venice Biennale and Documenta III in Kassel. Finally, in 1964, on the occasion of Flag Day, the art dealer Leo Castelli decides to give President John Kennedy a bronze version of Flag (1960), a choice that Johns finds horrible because he sees it as an instrumentalization of his art. In 1969 the artist publishes on Art in America the text Thoughts on Duchamp and later received an honorary degree in Classics at the University of South Carolina. At the end of the decade the art historian Max Kozloff publishes a monograph on him entitled Jasper Johns.
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Between 1974 and 1982 the so-called cross hatchings became the main pattern of his paintings. It appears for the first time in Untitled (1972) but is best represented by Scent (1973-1974), where the artist”s growing interest in graphic techniques is manifested, combined in this work with themes of sexuality and death. The same themes can be found in the following Between the Clock and the Bed (1981), which refers to the homonymous painting by Edvard Munch. In 1973 he met in Paris the playwright Samuel Beckett to discuss possible collaboration for the realization of the artistic book FoiradesFizzles, then published in 1976.
In the second half of the decade holds a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York then replicated in Cologne, Paris, London, Tokyo, San Francisco. Later, the New York museum buys Three Flags for one million dollars, the highest amount ever paid until then for an American artist still living, and during the eighties the works of Johns will constantly reach very high prices. In 1978 he was elected Honorary Academician of the Accademia delle arti del disegno of Florence (and later Emeritus Academician in 1987 and 1993). Between 1979 and 1981 he returned to using objects such as knives, forks and spoons in his creations, and he also became interested in new forms of objective representation such as tantric motifs.
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Starting from the eighties the works begin to be characterized by a strong psychological and private approach, as shown for example by In the Studio (1982), Perilous Night (1982) and Racing Thoughts (1983) in which the artist refers to a mental disorder that afflicts him in this period. The pictorial style also changed, with the introduction of double-reading images, quotations from other artists, trompe l”œil effects. Between 1980 and 1982 he became a member of the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Stockholm and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston. Between 1985 and 1986 he painted Four Seasons, traditionally recognized as the ages of life, which he first exhibited at Leo Castelli”s Gallery on West Broadway and later won the grand prize at the 1988 Venice Biennale. In 1989 he was nominated 38th member of the South Carolina Hall of Fame, recognition reserved to the most illustrious personages of his country, and became part of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. It is also dedicated to the documentary Jasper Johns: Ideas in Paint by Rick Tejada-Flores (1989).
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During the nineties he was awarded various prizes, including the National Medal of Arts, which was presented to him at the White House by American President George Bush in 1990. He has held several exhibitions: a retrospective at the MoMA in New York with subsequent stops in Cologne and Tokyo (1996-1997), Jasper Johns: New Paintings and Works on Paper at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art followed by exhibitions at the Yale University Art Gallery and the Museum of Art in Dallas (1999), an exhibition at the Walker Art Center which continues in other centers of the United States, Spain, Scotland and Ireland (2003), and finally Jasper Johns: Prints from the Low Road Studio at the Galleria di Castelli (2004).
At the end of the century, a new phase of his painting tends to the “emptying” of the pictorial surface; this can be seen for example in the series Catenary (1999), in which the title catenary indicates the curve created by the effect of gravity from a wire that is attached to its ends, so that in the various works the wires, real or painted, cross the surface and are the only subject within the canvas. In recent years Johns has retired mainly in Sharon (Connecticut) and on the island of Saint Martin, in the French West Indies, where he owns a studio built for him by the architect Philip Johnson.
There are several ways to frame the artist. First of all, Johns is considered one of the main exponents of New Dada, an American artistic current that refers to the Dada art of the beginning of the century, and that like it inserts the so-called Duchampian ready-made (i.e. objects taken from reality) within the work of art. This current is also very close to the contemporary French Nouveau Réalisme, in which objects taken from the most banal everyday life are used. The inclusion of the ready-made in the work is therefore also a solution to the problem of the representation of reality and the ordinary. The artist himself affirms that in his creations are found those objects that are looked at, but that in reality are not seen.
The use of objects that are not very manipulated and simply inserted into the work is also linked to the fact that Johns rejects the art of Abstract Expressionism, and therefore intends to reduce the gestural component of his intervention to a minimum, privileging the formal and constitutive aspects of the image itself. This hostile position is already manifested in the work Target with Plaster Casts where the presence of casts of parts of the human body could allude to the presumed opposition between “abstract” and “figurative” art. Also in Painting with Two Balls he acts as an attack on the myth of American painting linked to the generation of artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning: the two painted balls in fact allude to an ironic description of himself, against the typical virility flaunted in a theatrical way by other American artists.
Another characteristic of his art is that of keeping open the question of the distinction or connection between reality and representation, real image and painted image; many of his works, starting with Flags, are in fact characterized by a detached and tautological presentation of a common object whose boundaries coincide with the limits of the canvas. What matters to the artist is the intensity with which what is already known about the object influences what we see in it; in fact, to paint a flag or a target he does not need a model, since the idea he has of the object in his mind is sufficient. Especially the works having as subject flags, letters or targets, therefore, play on the ambivalence between the object itself and its representation. Very often, referring to his Flags, he asks the rhetorical question: “Is it a flag or a painting?”.
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Encaustic is a technique the artist uses very often to realize his works. It dates back to ancient Egypt and consists of mixing pigments and melted wax in the so-called encaustic process, to which Johns usually adds pieces of fabric or newspaper clippings. The final result is borderline figurative, yet it keeps visible traces of the artist”s manipulation, of the weaving of the fabrics or of the texts printed on the paper, allowing the work to open itself to several levels of reading between the presentation and the representation of an image. The surface of the works is seductive and fascinating, as well as new, original and current in the field of American art in the years in which Johns makes use of them.
Traditionally, the so-called punic wax used for encaustic is obtained by boiling hot wax in sea water, to which water, slaked lime and glue are then added; the mixture dissolved in water and still hot is thrown on the color and immediately mixed, spread on the work, left to dry, and finally heated again to allow the pigments to re-emerge on the surface. This technique allows for the addition of any type of pigment and does not require very rapid execution times; furthermore, it is very long-lasting since the wax is not subject to oxidation.
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