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Jasper Johns
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Augusta, Georgia
An innovative American painter, printmaker and sculptor, Jasper Johns is particularly known for his depiction of commonplace, two-dimensional subjects such as flags, targets, maps, numbers, and letters of the alphabet, created during the first decades of his career. Johns was able to transform these objects into icons through an extremely sensitive manipulation of surface texture using the "encaustic" technique (pigments are mixed with hot liquid wax). By virtue of their willful and ironic banality and their rejection of emotional expression, Johns's early works were a radical departure from the Abstract Expressionist of the time. He also affixed real objects to the surface of his canvases. Johns's unabashed depiction of commonplace emblems and objects was emulated by many Pop Art artists. Born in 1930 in Augusta, Georgia, he grew up in South Carolina, and attended the University of South Carolina for three semesters. He moved to New York City in 1949, briefly attended a commercial art school and supported himself with odd jobs until he was drafted into the U. S. Army in 1951. After his discharge in 1953 Johns returned to New York City where he briefly attended Hunter College. He soon met Robert Rauschenberg (b. 1925), who would have a great influence on his art. Johns moved to a loft near Rauschenberg’s studio and the two became close friends. Johns began painting the first of his famous American flag paintings in 1954 (Flag, 1954-55, New York: Museum of Modern Art [MOMA]) and the first of his paintings of numbers in 1955. At Rauschenberg’s suggestion, Johns supported himself by designing store window displays. One of his works from 1955, Green Target (New York: Museum of Modern Art), was included in a 1957 exhibition at New York’s Jewish Museum, where it was seen by the New York dealer Leo Castelli (1907-1999). While visiting Rauschenberg later that year, Castelli learned that Johns’s studio was nearby and asked to be introduced. That meeting led to Castelli’s exhibition of Flag and then a one-man show of Johns’s work in 1958. Alfred H. Barr, Jr., MOMA’s director, bought three works from the show for MOMA, private collectors purchased other works and Johns’s career was launched. Johns began making sculptures depicting commonplace objects that year, such as Light Bulb and Flashlight (both New York: Whitney Museum of American Art) and in 1960 his bronze sculpture of two beer cans (Painted Bronze, Cologne: Museum Ludwig). Johns began printmaking that year after Tatyana Grosman (1904-1982), the director of Universal Limited Art Editions, delivered lithographic stones to his studio. In 1963 Johns was one of the founders of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts and has been chairman of its board since its inception. The Foundation raises funds through sales of donated art works and has distributed more than $10 million to musicians, dancers, choreographers, poets and arts organizations. In the 1970s Johns began creating works using a cross-hatch pattern of parallel lines, and moved towards abstraction. Johns represented the United States at the 1988 Venice Biennale in an exhibition of his work from 1974 through 1986, including works with some figurative elements. It was the hit of the Biennale and won for him the Golden Lion, its most important prize. In the 1980s Johns included tracings of figures in his works, inspired by such diverse sources as the 16th –century German painter Matthias Grünewald (ca. 1470-ca. 1530) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Some critics see autobiographical references in his art. The MOMA mounted a retrospective of his prints in 1986 and a retrospective of all his work in 1996. Other major museum exhibitions of his works include those at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1999), the National Gallery of Art, Washington (2007) and the Art Institute of Chicago (2007). Johns currently divides his time between a 19th-century house in northwestern Connecticut and a house and studio on St. Martin Island in the Caribbean Sea. (Rev. TNB 7/2014) Selected bibliography: Bernstein, Roberta, ed. Jasper Johns. London and Los Angeles: Royal Academy of Art in collaboration with The Broad Museum, 2017. Craft, Catherine. Jasper Johns. New York: Parkstone Press International, 2009.