Born in Augusta, Georgia, Jasper Johns spent his early life in Allendale, South Carolina with his paternal grandparents after his parents' marriage failed. He then spent a year living with his mother in Columbia, South Carolina and thereafter he spent several years living with his aunt Gladys in Lake Murray, South Carolina, twenty-two miles from Columbia. He completed high school in Sumter, South Carolina, where he once again lived with his mother. Recounting this period in his life, he says, "In the place where I was a child, there were no artists and there was no art, so I really didn't know what that meant. I think I thought it meant that I would be in a situation different than the one that I was in." He began drawing when he was three and has continued doing art ever since.
Johns studied at the University of South Carolina from 1947 to 1948, a total of three semesters. He then moved to New York City and studied briefly at the Parsons School of Design in 1949. In 1952 and 1953 he was stationed in Sendai, Japan during the Korean War.
Numbers in Color (1958–59)
In 1954, after returning to New York, Johns met Robert Rauschenberg and they became long term lovers. In the same period he was strongly influenced by the gay couple Merce Cunningham (a choreographer) and John Cage (a composer). Working together they explored the contemporary art scene, and began developing their ideas on art. In 1958, gallery owner Leo Castelli discovered Johns while visiting Rauschenberg's studio. Castelli gave him his first solo show. It was here that Alfred Barr, the founding director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, purchased four works from his exhibition. In 1963, Johns and Cage founded Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, now known as Foundation for Contemporary Arts in New York City. Johns currently lives in Sharon, Connecticut and the Island of Saint Martin. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1984.
Ben Martin, Jasper Johns, Age 29, at Castelli Gallery with Target Painting, Rudi Belsh Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
On February 15, 2011 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, becoming the first painter or sculptor to receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom since Alexander Calder in 1977.
Johns is best known for his painting Flag (1954–55), which he painted after having a dream of the American flag. His work is often described as a Neo-Dadaist, as opposed to pop art, even though his subject matter often includes images and objects from popular culture. Still, many compilations on pop art include Jasper Johns as a pop artist because of his artistic use of classical iconography.
Early works were composed using simple schema such as flags, maps, targets, letters and numbers. Johns' treatment of the surface is often lush and painterly; he is famous for incorporating such media as encaustic and plaster relief in his paintings. Johns played with and presented opposites, contradictions, paradoxes, and ironies, much like Marcel Duchamp (who was associated with the Dada movement). Johns also produces intaglio prints, sculptures and lithographs with similar motifs.
Johns' breakthrough move, which was to inform much later work by others, was to appropriate popular iconography for painting, thus allowing a set of familiar associations to answer the need for subject. Though the Abstract Expressionists disdained subject matter, it could be argued that in the end, they had simply changed subjects. Johns neutralized the subject, so that something like a pure painted surface could declare itself. For twenty years after Johns painted Flag, the surface could suffice – for example, in Andy Warhol's silkscreens, or in Robert Irwin's illuminated ambient works.
Abstract Expressionist figures like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning subscribed to the concept of a macho "artist hero," and their paintings are indexical in that they stand effectively as a signature on canvas. In contrast, Neo-Dadaists like Johns and Rauschenberg seemed preoccupied with a lessening of the reliance of their art on indexical qualities, seeking instead to create meaning solely through the use of conventional symbols. Some have interpreted this as a rejection of the hallowed individualism of the Abstract Expressionists. Their works also imply symbols existing outside of any referential context. Johns' Flag, for instance, is primarily a visual object, divorced from its symbolic connotations and reduced to something in-itself.
In 1990, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. He is represented by the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York City, and in the spring 2008, a ten-year retrospective of Johns' drawings was mounted there.
In 1998, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York bought Johns' White Flag. While the Met would not disclose how much was paid, "experts estimate [the painting's] value at more than $20 million." In 2006, private collectors Anne and Kenneth Griffin (founder of the Chicago-based hedge fund Citadel LLC) bought Johns' False Start for $80 million, making it the most expensive painting by a living artist.
The National Gallery of Art acquired about 1,700 of Johns' proofs in 2007. This made the Gallery home to the largest number of Johns' works held by a single institution. The exhibition showed works from many points in Johns' career, including recent proofs of his prints.
Since the 1980s, Johns produces paintings at four to five a year, sometimes not at all during a year. His large scale paintings are much favored by collectors and because of their rarity, it is known that Johns' works are extremely difficult to acquire.
Skate’s Art Market Research (Skate Press, Ltd.), a New York based advisory firm servicing private and institutional investors in the art market, has ranked Jasper Johns as the 30th most valuable artist. The firm’s index of the 1,000 most valuable works of art sold at auction – Skate’s Top 1000 – contains 7 works by Johns.
The Greenville County Museum of Art in Greenville, South Carolina, has several of his pieces in their permanent collection.
White Flag (1955)
Target with Plaster Casts (1955)
False Start (1959)
Three Flags (1958)
Painting With Two Balls (1960)
Painted Bronze (1960)
Study for Skin (1962)
Periscope (Hart Crane) (1963)
Figure Five (1963–64)
The Critic Sees (1964)
Tantric Detail (1980)
Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955-1965 by Mr. Jeffrey Weiss
Hardcover: 296 pages
Publisher: Yale University Press (January 10, 2007)
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Jasper Johns (b. 1930) is one of the most significant figures in the history of postwar art. His work from 1955 to 1965 was pivotal, exercising an enormous impact on the subsequent development of pop, minimalism, and conceptual art in the United States and Europe. This is the first publication to approach Johns’s work of this ten-year period through a thematic framework. It examines the artist's interest in the condition of painting as a medium, a practice, and an instrument of encoded meaning through several interrelated motifs: the target, the “device,” the naming of colors, and the imprint of the body.
In this handsome book, leading scholars, a conservator, and a contemporary artist consider Johns’s activity in this critical decade and discuss many of his iconic paintings, such as Target with Four Faces (1955), Diver (1962), Periscope (Hart Crane) (1963), and Arrive-Depart (1963). Their new critical and historical perspectives are grounded in an unusually close visual and material analysis of Johns's work.
Jasper Johns: A Retrospective
Hardcover: 408 pages
Publisher: The Museum of Modern Art, New York; First edition (March 1, 2006)
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Jasper Johns's art unites mastery, mystery, simplicity, and contradiction. His methodical working process combines intense deliberation and experimentation, obsessive craft, cycles of revision and repetition, and decisive shifts of direction. Johns also frequently borrows images from other artists, which, ironically, only underscores the originality of his own vision. His work occupies a key position in the art of the second half of the twentieth century. Jasper Johns: A Retrospective is the most complete and authoritative resource on it available, containing 264 color plates illustrating his paintings, drawings, sculptures, and prints. Accompanying essays review his essential themes, analyze his references to other artists, and explore how his contemporaries have, in turn, seen and absorbed his own work. The plates are arranged to follow the stages of his career, allowing comparison of paintings, drawings, sculptures, and prints from each period, as his style developed and changed. That comprehensive selection of reproductions is interwoven with an illustrated chronology tracing Johns' life and work with unprecedented accuracy and thoroughness. With its scholarly essays and extensive bibliography, Jasper Johns: A Retrospective is the indispensable reference work on this crucial artist. This volume was originally published to accompany the major exhibition of Johns' work held at The Museum of Modern Art in 1996 and 1997, his first full retrospective in 20 years. It has been out of print since 2002.
A Thing Among Things: The Art of Jasper Johns by John Yau
Hardcover: 208 pages
Publisher: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers; First Edition edition (December 1, 2008)
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This beautifully illustrated and profoundly original volume of essays by the New York poet and critic John Yau mounts one of the most eloquent defenses of the art and vision of Jasper Johns ever written--going well past tired and traditional Formalist readings of the artist's work to propose a completely new way of reading them: One that is intensely human. Praised by renowned American art historian and critic Jack Flam as, "a brilliantly attentive and original reading of Jasper Johns' work," this volume not only makes many aspects of the artist's work accessible for the first time, but also reveals an emotional tenor to the man whom so many critics have characterized, wrongly, according to Yau, as aloof or hermetic.
Expanding upon the ideas he laid out in The United States of Jasper Johns, published in 1996 by Zoland Books, Yau traces the ways that the artist's work conveys a connection to the common experience--a "sense of life" that encompasses thoughts, memory, consumption, excretion, life, death, time and mortality. Yau's readings of the works are broadened by statements from conversations between the poet and artist that have taken place over the course of the last 30 years. Lending to this sense of intimacy, many of the works collected in this volume come directly from the artist's studio or his private collection, and have rarely been reproduced before. According to Flam, "John Yau focuses his attention on how the artist's pioneering paintings relate to life as it is lived--and on what they tell us about what it means to be mortal and alive in time. Along the way, Yau cuts a much-needed clearing through the tangle of narrowly self-reflexive interpretations that have plagued so much critical writing on Johns' work during the past half century--providing a fresh approach and opening our eyes to Johns' accomplishment in revealing ways. This is a groundbreaking book, written with both precision and passion. It should be read by everyone who cares about modern painting."
John Yau is a poet and critic. He is the author of several books, including The Passionate Spectator: Essays on Art and Poetry, Paradiso Diaspora and Borrowed Love Poems, as well as contributions to monographs and catalogues on Joan Mitchell, Jessica Stockholder, Wifredo Lam and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Since 2004, he has been the Arts Editor of the Brooklyn Rail. He has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, Yale University and the Maryland Institute College of Art, and is currently an Associate Professor of Critical Studies at Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry in 2006-2007.
Jasper Johns: Privileged Information by Jill Johnston
Hardcover: 335 pages
Publisher: Thames & Hudson; First Edition edition (October 1996)
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Fusing criticism and biography, this work offers insight into the life and work of America's pre-eminent living artist. Assigned to write a review of Jasper Johns's "The Seasons", a series of paintings that would be acclaimed at the 1988 Venice Biennale, Jill Johnston became intrigued by a mysterious detail in each of these paintings which is designed to look like a jigsaw puzzle piece. She found the source of this detail in Grunewald's 16th-century masterpiece, the "Isenheim Alterpiece" and it was this image, of a grotesquely diseased and dying man, that helped Johnston unlock an autobiographical core in Johns's work. Whereas most critics have been impressed by the formal qualities of Johns's paintings, Johnston discovers riches of personal meaning throughout his art. She charts the evolution of Johns's artistic, personal and public identities, from his family roots in South Carolina though to the early 1950s when Johns, together with Rauschenberg, Cunningham and Cage, overturned assumtions about modern art, dance, music and theatre. She interviewed many figures associated with Johns and had several enigmatic encounters with Johns himself.