Jasper Johns, Jr. (born May 15, 1930) is an American contemporary artist who works primarily in painting and printmaking.
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.
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. Until 2012, he lived in a rustic 1930s farmhouse with a glass-walled studio in Stony Point, New York for close to three decades. He first began visiting St. Martin in the late 1960s and bought the property here in 1972. The architect Philip Johnson is the principal designer of his home, a long, white, rectangular structure divided into three distinct sections.
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.
Johns makes his sculptures in wax first, working the surfaces in a complex pattern of textures, often layering collaged elements such as impressions of newsprint, or of a key, a cast of his friend Merce Cunningham’s foot, or one of his own hand. He then casts the waxes in bronze, and, finally, works over the surface again, applying the patina. Flashlight is one of his Johns' earliest pedestal-based sculptures. One sculpture, a double-sided relief titled Fragment of a Letter (2009), incorporates part of a letter from Vincent van Gogh to his friend, the artist Émile Bernard. Using blocks of type, Johns pressed the letters of van Gogh’s words into the wax. On the other side he spelled out the letter in the American Sign Language alphabet with stamps he made himself. Finally, he signed his name in the wax with his hands in sign language. Numbers (2007) is the largest single bronze Johns has made and depicts his now classic pattern of stenciled numerals repeated in a grid.
Since 1960 Johns has worked closely with Universal Limited Art Editions, Inc (ULAE) in a variety of printmaking techniques to investigate and develop existing compositions. Initially, lithography suited Johns and enabled him to create print versions of iconic depiction of flags, maps, and targets that filled his paintings. In 1971, Johns became the first artist at ULAE to use the handfed offset lithographic press, resulting in Decoy - an image realized in printmaking before it was made in drawing or painting. However, apart from the Lead Reliefs series of 1969, he has concentrated his efforts on lithography at Gemini G.E.L. In 1976, Johns partnered with writer Samuel Beckett to create Foirades/Fizzles; the book includes 33 etchings, which revisit an earlier work by Johns and five text fragments by Beckett. He has also worked with Atelier Crommelynck in Paris, in association with Petersburg Press of London and New York; and Simca Print Artists in New York.
In 1964, architect Philip Johnson, a friend, commissioned Johns to make a piece for what is now the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. After presiding over the theatre’s lobby for 35 years, Numbers (1964), an enormous 9-foot-by-7-foot grid of numerals, was supposed to be sold by the center for a reported $15m. Art historians consider Numbers a historically important work in part because it is the largest of the artist's numbers motifs and the only one where each unit is on a separate stretcher, fashioned from a material called Sculpmetal, which was chosen by the artist for its durability. Responding to widespread criticism, the board of Lincoln Center had to drop its selling plans.
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." 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. The Greenville County Museum of Art in Greenville, South Carolina, has several of his pieces in their permanent collection.
Johns was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1984. In 1990, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. 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.
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. His works from the mid to late 1950s, typically viewed as his period of rebellion against Abstract Expressionism, remain his most sought after. 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.
Already in 1980 the Whitney Museum of American Art spent $1 million for Three Flags (1958), then the highest price ever paid for the work of a living artist. In 2006, private collectors Anne and Kenneth Griffin (founder of the Chicago-based hedge fund Citadel LLC) bought Johns' False Start (1959) from David Geffen for $80 million, making it the most expensive painting by a living artist.
Between 1957 and 1999, Johns had sold his work through Leo Castelli. Since 2000, he has been 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.