With the July Fourth holiday upon us, I thought it the perfect time to pay a short tribute to one of America’s greatest living artists: Jasper Johns (b.1930).
Born in Georgia and having spent his early years in the South, Johns moved to New York in 1949 and briefly studied at Parsons before serving in Japan during the Korean War. He returned to New York in 1954 to find an incredibly vibrant art scene. Joining other great 20th Century masters such as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, Johns’ style rejected the abstraction that had dominated art before the war and instead took inspiration from the Pop Art movement developing around him.
Johns’ American Flag of 1960 (main image) is a prime example of his distinct take on Pop Art. Taken from a dream he had of the American flag, he takes the iconic image and “roughs” it up to show Old Glory with all her battle scars. Rather than use oil on canvas, Johns used an ancient and little used technique, encaustic, which is hot wax mixed with pigment. Johns said he switched to this method because the drying process was faster and he required something that dried in minutes and not in hours as oils so often do.
School textbook maps that one colors as a kid inspired the image from Johns’ “Interpretative Map of the USA”, 1961(second image). The artist paints swirls across the map blurring state borders in lush mixes of red, yellow and blue. There is a much more random quality to this piece than, for example, the more calculated Flag painting. Here paint was allowed to drip and fall haphazardly. Johns said his technique on this painting represented the “casual” aspects of life.
Johns used a much more controlled technique in his “Two Maps I” of 1966. Almost looking like an x-ray, this single work is actually a lithograph (print) in which he depicts the same image twice though printed in 2 different ways – the first blurred; the second more distinct. As in his works above, Johns is inviting the viewer to look closely at something we all easily recognize without “reading” it for information, but to appreciate it for what it is.
Happy 4 of July!