Jasper Johns
Biography of American Pop Artist and Neo-Dadaist.

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Jasper Johns (b.1930)


Early Life
Pop Art
Instantly Recognizable Subjects
Experimental Artist
Artistic Achievements and Awards
Most Expensive Paintings

NOTE: For analysis of works by early Pop artists like Jasper Johns,
please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For a list of painters like
Jasper Johns, see:
Modern Artists.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.

For an explanation of the
terminology, see:
Art: Definition and Meaning.

Key Work

False Start (1959) Private Collection.
One of the Great 20th-Century Paintings.
Sold privately in 2006, for $80 million.



An important and influential figure in American art, and one of the most successful 20th century painters, Johns, together with Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and the composer John Cage (1912-92), was a leading pioneer of Pop Art during the 1950s. His career took off after his first solo exhibition at the Leo Castelli art gallery in New York in 1958. Since then he has become famous for a series of artworks - involving sculpture as well as painting - depicting commonplace objects - including flags, targets, numbers, beer cans, and others. At times, this has verged on Junk art, and during the late 50s and 60s Johns was an active contributor to avant-garde art in America. He was known for incorporating encaustic paint and plaster relief, as well as real objects, into his oil painting. It was his use of images from popular culture that gave him the label Pop-artist, although his artistic statements have also led to some of his work being described as Neo-Dada art. Slower, more methodical and more of a painterly artist than other younger pop-artists who tended to rely heavily on commercial art techniques (serigraphy, benday dots), Johns' works attracted significant praise and patronage. Later, he too explored new media, like screen-printing, as well as intaglio prints, lithography and giclee prints. In 1998, the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York allegedly spent $20 million acquiring his work White Flag; in 2006, his painting False Start was purchased by private collectors for a reported $80 million, making it one of the most expensive paintings by a living artist. Other important works by Jasper Johns include: Flag (1954-55) and Target with Four Faces (1955) both in MOMA, New York; The Flags (1958, Whitney Museum of American Art); Painted Bronze (1960, Kunstmuseum, Basel); Ale Cans (1964, Kunstsammlung Basel); Perilous Night (1982, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC); Racing Thoughts (1983, Whitney Museum of American Art); and Green Angel Works (1990s, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis).



Early Life

Jasper Johns was born in Augusta, Georgia, and grew up in Allendale, South Carolina, where he was raised by relatives after being abandoned by his mother. He began drawing at the age of three and later studied fine art both at the University of South Carolina (1947-1948), and at the Parsons School of Design (1949) in New York. During his stay in New York, Johns had a relationship with Robert Rauschenberg - with whom he also worked, designing window displays for department stores - and became part of the city's contemporary art scene. After serving in Japan during the Korean War, Johns returned to New York and, in 1957, showed his work Green Target (1955) at a group exhibition where it was noticed by the highly influential contemporary art dealer Leo Castelli (1907-99). The following year, Castelli gave Johns his first one-man show which resulted in the purchase of four works by the New York Museum of Modern Art. This made Johns' reputation, and from this time onwards his work has been avidly collected.


Pop Art

His early style of Pop Art featured simple visual motifs like flags, maps and targets, as exemplified by: Flag (1954, Museum of Modern Art New York), Target (1958, private collection) and Three Flags (1958, Whitney Museum of American Art). He also became a pioneer of word art when he began inserting words (or numbers) into his abstract paintings, such as - Gray Numbers (1957, Private Collection), False Start (1959, Private Collection), Jubilee (1960, MOMA, New York), and Gray Alphabets (1968, MOMA, New York) - in order to reintroduce 'content'. In this area, his effect on younger contemporary artists like Christopher Wool (b.1955) is clear. Important Later, he included encaustic and plaster relief in his work, as well as wires, hinges, rulers, cups and a broom. By 1964 he was producing bronze sculpture using banal objects like beer cans (Ale Cans, 1964, Offentliche Kunstsammlung Basel), along with monumental canvases like According to What (1964), which managed to combine collage, readymade lettering, as well as attached objects including a chair and a cast of a human leg!

Instantly Recognizable Subjects

In contrast to the aesthetics and artistic theories of Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock (1912-56) and Willem de Kooning (1904-97), the conceptual basis for much of Johns' pop art was the neutralization of subject - achieved by using commonplace and instantly recognizable objects with which the viewer already had a visual relationship - in order to concentrate instead on exploring the limits of the painted surface and thereby answer Dada-type questions like - is this a work of craftsmanship, or a worthless throwaway object? Often described as Neo-Dadaist, many of Johns' works are more like junk art and possess a unique aura of uncertainty about their intrinsic value. In addition, by including a range of low-brow "found objects", his pop art also addresses many of the issues tackled by the movement as a whole: such as, what can art be made from?

Experimental Artist

A constant innovator, Johns continued to experiment with differing media during the late 1960s, producing lithographic prints as well as "drawings" of his own body, created by coating himself in charcoal and oil and then rolling on paper. (Compare the anthropometry of Yves Klein and the drip technique of Jackson Pollock's paintings.) In the 1970s he experimented with crosshatching designs in his painting - after the Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch (1863-1944) - while in the 1980s he became more autobiographical (Racing Thoughts 1983, Whitney Museum) and also included numerous optical illusions in his works. Above all, this experimentation reflected his particular interest in the physical qualities of different media. For instance, he was one of the few exponents of encaustic painting (pigment mixed with hot wax), and sculp-metal, a quick-drying material designed for crafts hobbyists rather than serious sculptors. His other work includes designs for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

Artistic Achievements and Awards

Johns had his first retrospective in New York (1964) at the tender age of 34. A second retrospective in the same city followed in 1977. In March 2008, a ten-year retrospective of Johns' graphic art was held at New York City's Matthew Marks Gallery. In 1967, Johns won First Prizes at the Sao Paulo Bienal and the International Exhibition of Prints in Ljubljana, Yugoslavia. As late as 1988 he was awarded the principal painting prize at the 1988 Venice Biennale. See also: American Sculptors.

Most Expensive Paintings

Johns produces a mere 4-5 works per year, thereby maintaining the comparative rarity of his artworks, and endearing himself to buyers and collectors who continue to pay top prices. Two of his most highly priced works include:

White Flag (1955)
Reputedly purchased in 1998 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for $20 million.
False Start (1959)
Reportedly sold by David Geffen in 2006 to businessman Kenneth C. Griffin for $80 million.

For more details, see: Most Expensive Paintings: Top 10.

Paintings by Jasper Johns can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world.

• For biographical details of 3-D artists, see: Greatest Sculptors.
• For more information about American modern art, see: Homepage.

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