American Neo-Dada artist Jasper Johns has made a significant and long-lasting contribution to art history, with a series of daring and provocative artworks that questioned the role of art in 1950s America. His iconic flag, target, number and map paintings are widely recognized today as important precursors to the Pop Art movement of the 1960s, demonstrating how the familiar, widely distributed tropes of everyday life could be translated into seismic works of art, and imbued with layers of personal meaning. We celebrate the long-lasting legacy of this endlessly experimental artist, now in his 92nd year, with an overview on four of his most influential artworks.
1. Flag, 1954
Jasper Johns made his first painting of the American flag at the age of 24 in 1954-55, and from this moment on he has continued to explore the motif throughout his career. In many ways the painting drew on Duchamp’s legacy of the ‘readymade’, in which pre-existing objects were transformed into works of art – like Duchamp, Johns takes a well-known symbol and reproduces it in paint, thus transcribing it with a new meaning.
Johns made this painting with encaustic, a traditional painting process in which pigments are blended with beeswax, thus lending his painting a sensuous, tactile quality that is entirely absent from the printed flags we are used to seeing. In this way he reminds us we are looking at an art object, made by a human hand, exploring what Johns called “the physicality of paint.”
2. Painting with Two Balls, 1960
On the one hand, this artwork by Jasper Johns appears to be an expressionistic painting in the manner of the New York school of Abstract Expressionism prevalent during the time. But closer inspection reveals that the artwork has been split open, and two balls have been squeezed into the gap. Johns thereby breaks apart the utopian illusion that the painting could represent an entry into another realm, instead emphasizing the very object-ness of the painted surface.
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The balls are, like flags, a reference to the ordinary and every day, and their insertion here brings Johns’ artwork back in connection with the real world, thus leading the way for the Pop Art of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and others, who similarly sought ways of connecting their art with the lives of ordinary American people.
Johns also makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to the machismo of Abstract Expressionist painting, which was dominated by men, noting “It’s a phrase I used to hear all the time…’It was a ballsy painting’… he was really painting with two balls.”
3. Target, 1961
Like flags, targets were another recurring motif in Jasper Johns’ art, part of a formal repertoire he called “things that are seen and looked at, not examined.” He chose the target because he saw this symbol as closely associated with American life during the mid-20th century. His bold, brightly colored targets contrasted sharply with the prevailing preference for Abstract Expressionism that was dominating the American art world during this time. In turning his back on expressionism for a flat, clean brand of symbolism drawn from daily life, he opened up new pathways for making art from the detritus of everyday life, proving that just about any familiar object or motif could be brought into the gallery space.
4. Usuyuki, 1979
Between 1972 and 1983, Johns embarked on a series of artworks titled Usuyuki, Japanese for ‘light snow.’ He made reference with this title to an 18th century Kabuki play featuring a princess called Usuyuki, and the story’s exploration of “the fleeting quality of beauty in the world.” Much like snow, the series is comprised of paintings and prints featuring a series of cross-hatched marks, which he says were, in part, influenced by a pattern he observed on a car driving along the Long Island Expressway, connecting back to real world experience, albeit in a more obscure way than in earlier works.