Jasper Johns Working Many Levels

Jasper Johns Working Many Levels

LiveAuctionTalk.com: by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Dave Rago.

American painter, sculptor and printmaker Jasper Johns thrived on painting everyday objects like U.S. maps, flags, numbers, ale cans, letters and targets.  He set the stage in America for Pop Art and Minimalism in the late-1950s.  Critics loved and hated his work. 

"Using the design of the American flag took care of a great deal for me because I didn't have to design it.  So I went on to similar things like the targets--things the mind already knows.  That gave me room to work on other levels," he said. 

He makes his audience stop and take a second look at commonplace things--viewing them as art objects, transforming them in his way.  It's a shift in perception, a brain teaser of sorts.

The idea of working on another level comes up a lot in his discussion of his work.  

Johns paints when he paints declaring he never developed good working habits and lacks discipline.  He doesn't paint everyday or at any particular hour of day.  He only works on one project at a time because he doesn't know what's coming next until he finishes the project at hand. 

As a kid he trained himself to live in the moment.  The kind of creativity flowing from this level of attention resonates in his work. 

“I did lots of other stuff, but it was done in a different spirit.  It was done with the spirit that I wanted to be an artist, not that I was an artist.”
— Jasper Johns

He is famous for incorporating encaustic and plaster relief in his paintings and has been called one of the greatest printmakers of any era.  Johns sometimes made counterpart prints to his paintings. 

When he was 24-years-old Johns destroyed all his works.  This wasn't the last time he would do this.  Only four pieces remain from the early period.

"I did lots of other stuff, but it was done in a different spirit.  It was done with the spirit that I wanted to be an artist, not that I was an artist," he said.  That shift in perception was critical to him. 

In 1948 at 19 Johns moved to New York from South Carolina and studied briefly at the Parsons School of Design.  He met fellow artist Robert Rauschenberg, composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham.  Together they explored the art world in New York and nurtured each other's work.        

"Throughout his work, Johns has always evinced a remarkable ability to recreate a naive perception--in the best sense of the word.  This is the perception of the child, who sees an object and cannot make sense of it, since sense means, ultimately, adult sense," said novelist and collector Michael Crichton. 

Johns views his world with what might be called "adult" innocence, merging what is new with what is familiar.  What it all ultimately means rests with the viewer because John's body of work is endlessly changing.  

On Nov. 5, Rago Auctions featured a selection of Jasper Johns prints in its Post-War and Contemporary Art auction. 

Jasper Johns

Screenprint; untitled; colors on Patapar printing parchment; edition of 3,000; 1977; 10 inches by 10 inches;  $2,500.

Die-cut stencil; M.D. from Merce Cunningham Portfolio; signed; dated; titled and numbered 38/100; 1974;  21 1/2 inches by 17 3/8 inches approximate;  $2,500.

Screenprint;  untitled; colors; signed; dated, and numbered 4/100 from "Reality and Paradoxes" series; 1973; 23 1/8 inches by 31 inches;  $3,625.

Lithograph; Ale Cans; colors; signed; dated and numbered 9/14; 1975; 19 inches by 14 1/4 inches;  $3,750.

Lithograph; M; colors; Angoumois paper; signed; dated and numbered; A.P. V/IX; 1972; 38 3/8 inches by 29 inches;  $7,500. 


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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