In 1954, Jasper Johns destroyed all his art. That year, at the age of 24, he decided “to stop becoming, and to be an artist.” This choice helped him come into his own while affording him a self-definition separate from that of the Abstract Expressionists, who saw art as an arena in which to project their personal feelings. Johns hoped to see and represent the world around him as a collection of impersonal facts. At this critical moment of beginning, he realized that life should not just be inspiring sometimes. Rather, it is one’s state of mind that perceives the purity and value of moment-to-moment life as variable. With his art, Johns defies the instinct to express raw emotions inspired by experience. According to Johns, only the existence of art on an impersonal level can create new experiences for the spectator.
Johns was born on May 15, 1930, in Atlanta, Georgia. His parents separated, mostly because of his father’s drinking problem, when the future artist was only one. Too poor to support herself and a young child, Johns’s mother left her son with his paternal grandfather, who died when Johns was nine. Johns drew and painted all through his childhood, though mostly alone; he rarely saw work of other artists, and few people cared about his own work. In 1947, he enrolled at the University of South Carolina, but he studied there for only two years before moving to New York. Soon after destroying his art, Johns dreamed he was painting a large American flag. That same year, he painted his first one using the technique of encaustic (this technique involves stroking layers of wax, which dries faster than paint).
By 1955, Johns was living and working in a loft on Pearl Street in New York. Robert Rauschenberg, five years older and already famous for his erasure of a de Kooning drawing, moved into the same building. The two artists became lovers and maintained a relationship through painting each other’s pictures and sharing their art. In addition, the two men held a mutual belief in detachment from personal expression. Through Rauschenberg, Johns met the composer John Cage, whose acceptance of “things as they are” influenced Johns’s own attitude toward life. In 1959, Johns met Marcel Duchamp, considered the father of the Dada movement. While the two were not great friends (they usually saw each other only with Cage), Duchamp’s ideas had a considerable influence on the younger artist’s work. Johns did not see Duchamp as a destroyer of art, the way Duchamp seemed to think of himself. “I know one’s not supposed to say this,” Johns said of his mentor, “but I regard his work as art of a positive nature. I see it as art.”
The time Johns spent in New York led him to develop an obsession with the everyday image. He expressed this obsession by attaching objects to the painted canvas, such as in the works Canvas, Book, and Drawer. Both this new method and the preceding one of painting well-known images such as flags and targets allowed Johns to incorporate mundane objects into a personal language. He sought to make the world his own, but at the same time creating a space in which the viewer’s experience was never defined but rather open to change and even contradiction. In 1961, Johns discovered a theory of language in Wittgenstein’s philosophy that coincided with his own. Wittgenstein, who questioned the effects of language on people’s visual perceptions, was interested in separating words from their meanings in an effort to “do away with all explanation.” The idea of seeing things outside of their context encouraged Johns to accept each moment as it came, allowing every painting a world of its own, a microcosm for different ways of seeing.
Though Johns’s early paintings were popular, they were not exactly favored among critics. The art dealer Leo Castelli gave Johns his first one-man show in 1958, and the artist became famous overnight. At the same time, this exhibition established the critical controversy that would continue for the next five years. To early viewers, Johns’s art seemed to question the confidence of Abstract Expressionism and also, more importantly, the value of the second generation’s imitation of Pollock and de Kooning techniques. Experimenting with lithography in 1960, Johns tried to complicate the process. His need to labor over the physical creation of art had been preceded by his use of encaustic in the early works, and his prints were usually based on motifs from the past.
In the early 1960s, affirmed by the success of his flag paintings, Johns spent time at his beach house in South Carolina. There, he began to paint in primarily gray, bleak tones, expressing a gloom that was thought to have settled into his life following a split with Rauschenberg. Isolated from the influential companionship offered by figures such as Duchamp, Rauschenberg, and Cage, Johns began to withdraw from the New York art scene. At the same time, the appearance of signs and labels in his works of this time recalls the artistic philosophy of Duchamp. The ideas that Johns expressed during this period, however, were distinctly his own, as seen in Study for Skin (1962), where he pressed his face against paper and then added charcoal to the oily stain. By literally putting his body into the work, Johns seems to have promised a kind of visceral honesty as an artist.
The 1960s and 1970s saw Johns’s dedicated exploration continue with various media and designs. He began to use screenprints, photographic reproductions, neon, and metal, and also produced some of the largest works of his career. The panoramic painting Untitled (1972) served as a point of departure from symbolic images. This work reached a new level of abstraction in that no objects, words, or well-known pictures are recognizable. In addition, the left side of the painting is covered by his signature crosshatch pattern, which he used almost exclusively for about a decade starting in 1974. Since the crosshatch motif became habitual but never represented anything, it signified Johns’s wish to create his own language. Unlike the flag and target motifs, which asked the viewer to see something familiar in a new way, this crosshatch pattern forced an addition to one’s visual lexicon. In the early 1980s, Johns chose a new motif of three-dimensional objects, incorporating such materials as faucets, clothing, and ceramics into his work.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, Johns began to use these three-dimensional objects and images to intensify the memories of early childhood, whose traces had appeared in earlier paintings. In the series entitled Seasons (1985-86), Johns assembled seasonal symbols to narrate the stages of his life and career. The self-portrait images found in the four paintings of this series were inspired by Picasso’s painting The Shadow (1953). It was less than five years later that Johns would change his mind about the usefulness of concrete symbols, which relied on prior knowledge to be understood. Johns tried to create fresh images that would challenge the eye rather than submit to what the viewer expected. By 1990, he began tracing images that cannot be referred back to a certain source, and he has continued to use this method in his works ever since.
In both his past and recent work, Johns has constantly disturbed the complacent order of the viewer’s mind, whose barriers begin to crumble in face of this challenging art. In Johns’s “clear-sighted enigmas,” the spectator begins to come to terms with the world of an artist whose goal lies in understanding the moment in its own context. Art should not come from the mind, but from the spark between the world and the eye that creates, according to Johns, “the final suggestion [that] has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement.” Fragments and wholes meet, simultaneously uncovering and obscuring meaning, and the works in front of us attest to Johns’s surprising conflation of clarity and enigma.