Jasper Johns reinvents numbers

American artist Jasper Johns (b.1930) has talked about certain motifs that appeared in his paintings in the 1950s as "things which are seen and not looked at, not examined...." Specifically, he was referring to paintings featuring the American flag or targets and, later, letters and numbers. They were all "things the mind already knows." They gave him "room to work on other levels."

In fact, these motifs (appearing as they did after American "abstract expressionists" had produced paintings free from subject matter, or object representation) were quite a surprise. The flag, for example, though transferred to the painting as a dispassionate design, nevertheless bore emotive significance. But Johns saw it as just a familiar, flat pattern - and then turned it into something between an object and an abstraction.

Letters and numbers were less emotive. Johns often set them in grids, depriving them of their usual function and reinventing them as formats for movements of paint, color, surface quality, or line. He negated their meaning even more by drawing or painting them over one another like archaeological layers. An ambiguous complexity is the result, questioning clarity as a necessary characteristic of art.

In Johns's work of this period, cross-currents are apparent. It is as if he didn't want to relinquish abstraction in his pursuit of representation, or the tactile for the conceptual.

Art historian Max Kosloff summed it up this way: "The two basic components of [Johns's] vision" he wrote, were "sensuous matter and conceptual paradox."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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