Jasper Johns was born in 1930 in Augusta, Georgia. His parents divorced when he was very young. He was raised by his grandparents, aunts, and uncles in South Carolina. He attended school in a one-room schoolhouse and attended the University of South Carolina for almost two years before dropping out. He then moved to New York City, promising his family that he would attend a commercial art school. Johns left the school because he was granted a scholarship for financial reasons only, not because of his artistic merit.
Johns held some odds jobs until 1950, when he was drafted into the United States Army. In 1952, he returned to New York City and attended Hunter College on the G. I. Bill, but soon dropped out. Johns then took a job in a bookstore and met Suzi Gablik, an art historian. Through Gablik, Johns met John Cage, the avant-garde composer; Merce Cunningham, a contemporary dancer and choreographer; and Robert Rauschenberg, an artist. Johns and Rauschenberg became good friends and worked closely together. They did free-lance window displays for Tiffany's and Bonwit Teller's and moved into separate lofts in the same Manhattan building. Although they had very different personalities-- Johns was quite reserved and Rauschenberg was very outgoing-- they viewed and discussed each other's work on a daily basis, and there is no doubt that they influenced each other.
Johns and Rauschenberg broke new ground by breaking away from Abstract Expressionism by using common objects in their paintings, combines, and assemblages. The influence of John Cage and Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades was apparent. Rauschenberg was more inclined to use actual objects in his work by attaching them to the painting surface. John's approach was often more traditional, although interested in the actual object, he would paint an image of the object, rather than using it directly.
In 1954, Johns destroyed all his work (except the pieces owned by friends) and had a dream about painting the American flag. His painting titled Flag (1954) was painted using encaustic (pigment suspended in wax), which formed a heavily encrusted surface. He also painted a series of "Targets," which included plaster casts of body parts.
In 1955, Johns painted his first numeral paintings in encaustic and collage on canvas. These paintings had the rich textures of the abstract expressionists, but since the paintings had familiar imagery from everyday life, their affect was very different than the expressive paintings of Pollock or de Kooning. These paintings, as well as the flags and the combine paintings of Robert Rauschenberg, became the basis for what would eventually be called Pop Art.
In 1958, Johns made the first of a series of sculptures, which played on the confusion between ready-made and hand-made objects. Two such sculptures are Painted Bronze (Beer Cans) (1960), which is a realistic representation of two Ballantine Ale cans, and Painted Bronze (1960), an exact reproduction of a Savarin coffee can containing paintbrushes. Both bronze sculptures were painted exactly like the objects that they represented. The fact that they were made from a material rich in tradition and difficult artistic media - cast bronze- and then painted to look exactly like the common objects which they represented, violated current artistic notions about being true to the material being used, and freed other artists from those values.
The use of commonplace objects by Johns influenced Pop Art, which emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. Duchamp had made the ready-made object into art; now Johns went further and made the object into a painting, challenging the tradition of collage in which actual common objects or pictures were added to the surface, fragmented, disguised.
The close relationship of Johns and Rauschenberg ended in 1962 after working together with Merce Cunningham at Connecticut College. The break was bitter and very painful, not only for them but for their close friends who felt that the break had diminished the art world by ending a productive relationship of great value.
Beginning in the late 1960s, Johns started to use the theme of the artist's studio for a number of his paintings. The exploration of this subject matter has reoccurred a number of times in his more recent work. Many of these paintings not only used painted canvases but also actual objects, which were attached to the painted surface: a broom, a stretched canvas, a twelve-inch ruler, and beer cans. These works, of course, have a conceptual similarity to the earlier work of Robert Rauschenberg, although they are not seen as derivative. Johns continues to paint and lives near New York. A major retrospective of his work was held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1996-1997.
Page author: C.A. & C.F.