Arguably the most famous living American artist, Jasper Johns has built an extraordinary career around the most ordinary subject matter, pursuing and presenting iconic imagery based on familiar objects he describes as “things the mind already knows.” Before his staggering ascent, however, Johns’ roots were rather humble. His parents divorced shortly after his birth and, as a result, Johns grew up living with relatives in various towns across his home state of South Carolina. He attended the University of South Carolina from September 1947 until December 1948, where his instructors included Catharine Rembert, Augusta Rembert Wittkowsky Walsh, and Edmund Yaghjian, all of whom encouraged him to go to New York. Heeding their advice, Johns headed north; arriving in the city, he enrolled in standard introductory art classes at the Parsons School of Design and visited the array of museums and galleries before being drafted for military service. He was stationed at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and in Japan.
Upon his release from the army in 1952, Johns settled in New York, and began to explore combinations of collage, encaustic painting, and other media. To support themselves, he and Robert Rauschenberg formed a partnership and designed storefront windows for major department stores, sometimes incorporating their own work as backdrops. In 1955, at the age of twenty-five, Johns created the image that would bring him international attention: a painting based on the American flag, a revolutionary move during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. He subsequently used the flag—along with other mundane, impersonal subjects such as letters, numbers, targets, and maps—in a variety of formats and materials. Explaining his penchant for reworking the same imagery, Johns asserted his mantra: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.”
Johns’ 1957 affiliation with the Leo Castelli Gallery brought critical and commercial recognition in the form of purchases by the Museum of Modern Art and exhibitions in Houston and Paris. He explored abstraction and also began working with Gemini G. E. L. and ULAE (Universal Limited Art Editions), two collaborative printmaking concerns. Using lithography, and later etching, Johns experimented with repetitive reversed imagery. Throughout this period of growth, he developed new and intriguing subject matter, applied stencil lettering for his signature, date, and title, and often affixed three-dimensional objects like rulers or strings to his paintings.
About the time Jasper Johns turned fifty-five in 1985, he embarked on a fresh body of work that was considerably different from his early imagery of commonplace numbers, targets, and flags. Not only did he begin to reveal things about himself and his childhood in South Carolina, but he also drew inspiration from earlier artists like Pablo Picasso, Edvard Munch, Mathias Grünewald, and Hans Holbein. The break between early and late styles, however, is not absolute; several of his overarching themes persist, such as his preoccupation with perception and his use of visual and verbal puns.
With works represented in the world’s most prestigious institutions, Johns’ talents have been celebrated on the international stage including major exhibitions in London, Vienna, and Basel. In this country, the Museum of Modern Art saluted him with a career retrospective in 1996, the National Gallery of Art in 2007 featured work from his first decade, and the next year the Art Institute of Chicago mounted GRAY, an in-depth investigation of Johns’ favorite color.