Art History: Jasper Johns in Context

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Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg are inextricably linked by art historians. Most likely Johns and Rauschenberg were lovers. We know that they lived in the same building and socialize with each other extensively, we also know that Rauschenberg made some comments about his relationship to Jasper Johns which is pretty strong evidence that they were.

They also shared the context of knowing the same performance artists, John Cage and Merce Cunningham, and they also worked together doing projects, such as window displays in New York City. Like the abstract expressionists, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline, we know that Johns and Rauschenberg socialized and hung out in the New York art scene of the 1950s. Most likely being in the right place at the right time contributed largely to all the artists above. It seems very likely that Rauschenberg also helped to further Johns career by introducing him to his gallery.

Many of the artist who lived in New York during the 1950s sought to make their reputations by coming up with a new type of art or technique for making art. For example, Robert Rauschenberg, used found objects and combine them together to make his “combines” that are a kind of sculptural collage. Andy Warhol also borrowed images that he changed and printed on canvas and wooden boxes. Both Rauschenberg and Warhol were major players in the style that developed at that time called “Pop Art.” The movement of Pop Art is slightly different than what the abstract expressionists were doing because the abstract expressionists were making paintings that really didn’t have a subject. As in the case of Jackson Pollock, the act of painting was called by critics “action painting.” The process of making the art was an active process that had to do with gesture and movement and very little to do with any type of representation. Pop Art is kind of an opposite to this.

The so-called pop artists of the 1950s into the 1960s often took a strategy lifted from the DADA artists such as Hannah Hoch and Marcel Duchamp. Most notably Duchamp and Hoch would take printed images and collage them into works of art. Duchamp even took things like a urinal from a bathroom and placed it on a pedestal in a gallery. This strategy was known by Duchamp as the “ready-made,” in which you would take something from one context, such as the urinal, and by placing it in a gallery he would “recontextualize it,” which is a kind of buzzword in art history, and transform it into art by changing how it was presented. For Marcel Duchamp it was kind of a joke, however, it became a kind of gold standard in terms of how to think about art and the role of artists. The pop artists of the 1950s use this strategy of taking ready-made for preprinted things from mainstream or commercial culture and changing its meaning. Also kind of joke, but, when artists like Warhol did it with his famous painted Brillo boxes, critics described it as a criticism of American consumer culture. Essentially then pop art criticizes the art world and consumerism in the modern world of the 1950s.

In the case of Jasper Johns, several of his works reappropriate or borrow symbols from mainstream culture and are used in a way that might change the symbols meaning. For example, Johns uses targets and flags in his work. I’ll discuss how John’s use of flags and targets might be interpreted but first it’s important to understand some things about how the paintings were made and the materials used.

In most of Johns more famous works he used traditional artist’s materials from much earlier periods. In these two paintings Johns uses a type of paint called encaustic. Encaustic paint is a type of paint that was used as far back as in ancient Greece as well as during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Encaustic is basically a medium in which pigments are added to melted wax and applied to the canvas or some other support, such as a wooden board, and when it hardens it becomes a paint layer with the particles of pigment suspended in the translucent wax.

Johns also used found stuff, especially newspaper, underneath the encaustic layers. This is kind of a combination of using Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made strategy combined with ancient or Renaissance techniques. This is important because it’s one of the things that historians have used to interpret what Jasper Johns paintings might mean. In one of the paintings, which is very close to the spirit of Robert Rauschenberg’s “combines”, Johns uses some plaster casts of faces and places them within boxes above the canvas painted with a target.

Analyzing the symbolism or meaning behind Jasper Johns works is kind of hard because he didn’t explain his work in any real depth. This is also kind of strategy that many artists use to make the viewer engaged with the work. In some ways one could view it as being a not very genuine way of making the work more interesting because it’s not clear what the work is about. There are various interpretations of why many of the artists from the 20th century would not or did not explain their work and you can look at the various theories or ideas by art critics and art historians that explain why they believe this is so. It is usually a matter of opinion rather than fact. What we do know about Jasper Johns is that he said he had a dream in which she saw a flag and the next day he decided to paint it.

The formal elements such as the use of encaustic medium in Jasper Johns paintings of the American flag has been theorized as being a type of “anachronistic” or out of time kind of element. In the same way that René Magritte used the words “this is not a pipe,” underneath an image of a pipe to create a kind of confusion or cognitive dissonance about what the painting is, for example, art historians often say about Magritte’s painting that it’s not a pipe it’s a painting of a pipe, and that’s why Magritte titled the painting “The Treachery of Images.” Henri Matisse, said something similar about one of his paintings. When Matisse was confronted by someone looking at his painting in which they said something along the lines of, “that’s not a woman!” Matisse replied, “it’s not a woman it’s a painting of a woman.”

When Jasper Johns paints the American flag it’s not an actual flag, it’s a painting of a flag. In this way, he is really representing or making us think about whether or not a painting of the flag is the same as an actual flag. It’s also possible that Jasper Johns was trying to make us think about what the American flag means to us as well and or to him. By using some old-fashioned techniques such as encaustic he’s also probably making a reference to how we think about things in terms of art history and the traditions presented by art history. I phrase these things as probabilities because we haven’t been able to really get evidence from Jasper Johns as to his intentions. Most students of art history then count on the interpretations of their professors or art critics to make sense of what the painting is supposed to mean to Jasper Johns and to the audience that viewed it.

detail of flag painting showing newspaper under the encaustic
Another element that adds to the interpretation of what Jasper Johns flag paintings mean is that underneath the encaustic are layers of newspaper from that time. Several of my professors and other art historians have suggested that Johns was deliberately including the layers of newspaper as a way to suggest the history or culture behind or underneath the flag almost as if the painting was an archaeological dig.

Given the interpretations better the most popular by critics and art historians, usually Jasper Johns flag paintings are interpreted as a type of symbol of America and the things that lurk underneath the surface of American culture. Again, this is not what Jasper Johns said this is how art critics and art historians have interpreted the flag paintings.

Extrapolating from this, the target paintings can be seen in a similar way. Since we don’t know what Jasper Johns intention was historians have suggested that Jasper Johns was a closeted gay man felt like a target. The layers of newspaper underneath the target again become a sort of archaeological dig into American culture and society and the small closets with plaster faces embedded in them could represent Jasper Johns feelings of being a targeted gay man who is in the closet. Again, these are extrapolations and interpretations suggested by others and not necessarily verified by Jasper Johns himself.
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Art History: Gustave Courbet, "The Burial at Ornans," 1849 oil on canvas, 51x58"

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Gustave Courbet, The Burial at Ornans1849 oil on canvas, 51x58" 

Form: Courbet's paintings are rendered in a realist and a realistic/naturalistic manner.  His value structure, anatomy and color are all fairly well observed and true to life.  Nevertheless, Courbet also worked with some formal elements that were less naturalistic.  His color is made up of a palette of low key somber earth tones.  The composition of this image is traditional but a bit odd.  The grave is cropped in the center foreground and the figures stand in a frieze like band just behind the hole.  The background's sky and low flat mountains are almost surreal (dreamlike) in their appearance.  His paint quality is a bit unique in that he incorporates the use of impastos in his work.  He employed a heavy use of the palette knife to literally trowel the paint on to the surface of the canvas.  The figures in the image are realistic but they are also "types" of people and in some ways their rough and course features are almost caricature like in how they are rendered.

Iconography:  The Burial at Ornans, depicts "real" people attending the funeral of a common or "real" person.  Courbet specialized in working class people and ordinary landscapes.  He took the idea of "History Painting" and expands on it by heroicizing the ugly common people of the country whom he had a great amount of sympathy for.  In some ways he is creating a monument for the common French peasant but the image also has some of the moralizing memento mori like warnings contained in Masaccio's "Trinity with Donors."  The hole in the foreground is very similar in its symbology to Masaccio's skeleton.

The strange truncated grave of the buried peasant demonstrates his anti heroic composition and an interest in the documentary and formal qualities of photography.  His memento mori is an attempt to illustrate the common fate of all humanity and for him his painting was and attempt to show this in an unedited truth to perceived fact - "the here and now."  Even the formal qualities of using earthy tones and the rough impastos are for Courbet symbolic of the rough and drab nature of reality.

Context:  Courbet was considered the father of Realist movement in 19th century art and accepted the term "realism" to describe his art.

According to the Brittanica,

Courbet (b. June 10, 1819, Ornans, Fr. d. Dec. 31, 1877, La Tour-de-Peilz, Switz. ) was a
French painter and leader of the realist movement. Courbet rebelled against the Romantic painting of his day, turning to everyday events for his subject matter. His huge shadowed canvases with their solid groups of figures ("The Artist's Studio," 1855) drew sharp criticism from the establishment. From the 1860s a more sensuous and colorful manner prevailed in his work.
Courbet was born in eastern France, the son of Eléonor-Régis, a prosperous farmer, and Sylvie Courbet. After attending both the Collège Royal and the college of fine arts at Besançon, he went to Paris in 1841, ostensibly to study law. He devoted himself more seriously, however, to studying the paintings of the masters in the Louvre. Father and son had great mutual respect, and, when Courbet told his father he intended to become a painter rather than a provincial lawyer, his father consented, saying, "If anyone gives up, it will be you, not me," and adding that, if necessary, he would sell his land and vineyards and even his houses.
Freed from all financial worry, young Courbet was able to devote himself entirely to his art. He gained technical proficiency by copying the pictures of Diego Velázquez, Ribera, and other 17th-century Spanish painters. In 1844, when he was 25, after several unsuccessful attempts, his self-portrait "Courbet with a Black Dog," painted in 1842, was accepted by the Salon--the only annual public exhibition of art in France, sponsored by the Royal Academy. When in the following years the jury for the Salon thrice rejected his work because of its unconventional style and bold subject matter, he remained undaunted and continued to submit it.
The Revolution of 1848 ushered in the Second Republic and a new liberal spirit that greatly affected the arts. The Salon held its exhibition not in the Louvre itself but in the adjoining galleries of the Tuileries. Courbet exhibited there in 1849, and his early work was greeted with considerable critical and public acclaim.
In 1849 he visited his family at Ornans to recover from the hectic life in Paris and, inspired again by his native countryside, produced two of his greatest paintings: "The Stone-Breakers" and "Burial at Ornans." Painted in 1849, "The Stone-Breakers" is a realistic rendering of two figures doing menial labour in a barren, rural setting. The "Burial at Ornans," from the following year, is a huge representation of a peasant funeral, containing more than 40 life-size figures. Both works depart radically from the more controlled, idealized pictures of either the Neoclassic or Romantic schools; they portray the life and emotions not of aristocratic personages but of humble peasants, and they do so with a realistic urgency. The fact that Courbet did not glorify his peasants but presented them boldly and starkly created a violent reaction in the art world.


Kenney Mencher
M.A. Art History, UC Davis
M.F.A. Fine Art, University of Cincinnati (1995)
BOSCH, Hieronymus.
Garden of Earthly Delights
(right hand panel of the triptych) c. 1500
Oil on panel, 220 x 195 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid
The dreamlike paradise of the center panel gives way to the nightmare of Hell in which the excitement of passion is transformed into a frenzy of suffering. Here the lushest paradise Bosch will ever produce leads to the most violent of his always violent hells. As is generally the case in Bosch's vision of Hell a burning city serves as a backdrop to the various activities carried out by Hell's citizens, but here the buildings don't merely burn, rather they explode with firey plumes blasting into the darkness as what appears to be a wave of refugees flee across a bridge toward an illuminated gate house.
As is always the case in Bosch's Hells the general theme is a chaos in which normal relationships are turned upside down and everyday objects are turned into objects of torture. And, given Bosch's use of musical instruments as symbolic of lust it is not surprising that in the Hell musical instruments as objects of torment are prominently featured. From the left we see a nude figure which has been attached by devils to the neck of a lute, while another has been entangled in the strings of a harp and a third has been stuffed down the neck of a great horn. http://www.artdamage.com/bosch/g...
The picture shows a detail of The Hell. Several huge musical instruments figure prominently in Bosch's conception of hell. They are shaped similarly to the ones used at that time, but their positioning is unrealistic (for example, a harp grows out of a lute). Their relationship to each other bears strongly fanciful elements, and they have been adapted in form. What is more, the use of these instruments is wholly fantastic. There is a human figure stretched across the strings of a harp; another writhes around the neck of a flute, intertwined with a snake; a third peers out of a drum equipped with bird-like feet, the next one plays triangle while reaching out from a hurdy-gurdy, and even the smoking trumpet displays an outstretched human arm. It is difficult to conceive that the group of damned souls would sing a hymn from the musical score fixed to the reverse of the reclining figure in front of them - although this has been proposed by some scholars. The ensemble, lead by an infernal monster, could more likely be a parody.
According to Dr. Bruce Lamott, a music historian, the depiction of the individual crucified on the harp, the image of the trumpet shoved up the rear end of one of the figures, and the ears sliced by the knives could be a reference to the ideas that were being debated by the Council of Trent. Many individuals felt that music was too sensuous and the work of the devil and that the new traditions of playing music in Church was a mistake.
There are also some very Giottoesque elements in this painting. In the lower right hand of hell is an image of a pig dressed in a nun's habit which obviously is a jab at the greedy nature of the Catholic Church. It is very similar to Giotto's inclusion of the Bishop who is taking money for indulgences and pardoning people in hell.


Art History: How to Analyze or "Break Down" a work of art or what are the main characteristics of a work of art?

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What are the main characteristics of a work of art?

I think that there are three major themes that a work of art can be analyzed.
The physical or tangible, or formal characteristics which are in physical properties. This includes size, color, texture, what it is made of. In general formal analysis is how it looks and feels.
The second characteristic has to do with the work’s meaning and what it represents. This has to do with the story it tells and how people interpret the meaning of the painting. Some times this is referred to as iconography.
The third category or characteristic has to do with a history, geography, and how it was produced. Who bought it or asked for it to be made? Where was it sold? What was the city or culture like that made it? When in history was it made? The context that surrounds the work.
Formal Analysis
(1) : orderly method of arrangement (as in the presentation of ideas) : manner of coordinating elements (as of an artistic production or course of reasoning)
(2) : a particular kind or instance of such arrangement
c : the structural element, plan, or design of a work of art -- visible and measurable unit defined by a contour : a bounded surface or volume
(3) The literal shape and mass of an object or figure.
(4) More general, the materials used to make a work of art, the ways in which these materials are used utilized in terms of the formal elements (medium, texture, rhythm, tempo, dynamic contrast, melody, line, light/contrast/value structure, color, texture, size and composition.)
Form consists of the physical properties of the work. Whether we look at a sculpture's size, mass, color, and texture or a poem's order of elements and composition, all are part of the work's form. When you are doing a formal analysis, you describe the way that the work looks, feels, and is organized. The next passage is a formal analysis of a work of art; the Augustus of Primaporta is a statue from the first century BCE.
The statue stands six feet eight inches tall and is made of white marble. It depicts a male figure wearing armor and some drapery, with his right arm raised. The figure carries a bronze spear or staff in his left hand. The texture of the hair and skin mimic the texture of real hair and skin. Augustus stands in contrapposto, appearing to be stepping forward with most of his weight resting on his right hip. Attached to his right leg is a small dolphin with a winged baby on its back.
One of the more important elements concerning form is the idea of composition. Composition can include how things are laid out in two dimensional space or how the picture plane is organized.
For example, the top two images in this illustration are asymmetrical. The blue circles are not evenly distributed through out each rectangle.
The bottom two most images are symmetrical. There are balancing elements on each side of the blue sphere in the lower left hand image. Even though one of the objects is a square and the other a circle, they take up about the same amount of space and have the same visual weight.
The boxes on either side of the tall white rectangle are mirror images of each other and this can be referred to as symmetrical too. Since you could draw a vertical line down the center of the center rectangle and on each side of this imaginary line it would be a mirror image, this is called bilateral symmetry.
The "Whirling Logs" textile on the left is arranged in a bilaterally symmetrical fashion because we could draw cut the design in half and the left and right sides are nearly a mirror image of each other. Nevertheless, for all its symmetry, this textile appears kind of flat looking.
Composition also has to do with the creation of the illusion of space. When we look at pictures (as opposed to sculptures as the Augustus above) we often think of the picture as an imaginary window. The front of the window, or the glass, is the picture plane that we look through.
In order to create space artists conceive of the picture plane as having three planes that recede back. In order to create space in the picture plane and the appearance of a foreground, middleground and background we can overlap objects to give this illusion. If there is nothing overlapped then we can say that there is no real illusion of space in the picture.
These two pictures demonstrate this idea. If you look at the one on the left, there is very little overlapping in the picture plane and the figures seem to be pressed against this imaginary window. While the one on the right has some overlapping and we can tell that some figures are in front of others. This overlapping gives us a sense of space.
These two sculptural friezes demonstrate these ideas in a three dimensional form. If you look at the one on the left, there is very little overlapping in the picture plane and the figures seem to be pressed against this imaginary window. While the one on the right has some overlapping and we can tell that some figures are in front of others. This overlapping gives us a sense of space.
Here is an example of a formal analysis of the Greek tragedy The Bacchae written by Euripides in 406 BCE. You can use a similar format of analysis when examining a work of art.
The Bacchae is play written in a chant form called dithyramb. Musical instruments, especially the drum, were used to keep time in the performance of the play. Approximately eighty percent of the play is dialogue while only a small portion is devoted to action on the stage. The order of the narrative is predictable and therefore symmetrical because there is a continuous cycle of basic components that are repeated throughout the play. These components are known as the prologos, parados, episode, stasimon, and exodos. The repeated sections are the three central components of the parados, episode, and stasimon, which are retold in predictable form as many as five times in the typical Greek tragedy.
Another look at schema and correction:
Summary of Gombrich
Renown art historian Ernst Gombrich developed a theory to explain these adaptations and changes and refered to it as schema and correction. If we were to look at the Archaic period's art and architecture as the plan or schema, we can see how the later Classic period might have taken the archaic art as its schema and updated it in order to make the designs more pleasing according to the later tastes. These changes are referred to as the correction.
The next update or correction occurs when the same pose and musculature from the Doryphoros were adopted and adapted for use by the Romans in the portrait of Augustus.
To understand his theory called "schema and naturalization," or "schema and correction." To understand it you basically just need to know the definitions of three words.
  • Schema is the cultural code through which individuals raised in a culture perceive the world. For example, we recognize stick figures to be humans.
  • Correction is where you take that schema and you compare it to what your senses tell you about the world and then you make it more accurate.
  • Mimesis is the process of correcting your schema.
Gombrich's idea can be expanded to looking how later groups can take the earlier work of art and mimic it (mimesis). This is a kind of Darwinian theory kind of like Darwin's theory of the "survival of the fitest."
Read some more stuff by Gombrich if it interests you!
Some interesting ideas that might help you to understand the terms "civilization" and "period" occur when studying the concept of "schema and correction." Both of these works of art come from the Ancient Greek civilization. Even though we use the term "ancient" what we are saying is that the Greek civilization occurred a long time ago. Within the Ancient Greek civilization, is tied to the region of land we now call Greece. The civilization lasted between circa (approximately) 1000 BCE to about 100 BCE but we divide the Greek civilization into various periods that are defined by the style of art they produced. For example, the Kouros from Attica, comes from a period we refer to as the Archaic period, which lasted from around 600-480 BCE. The style associated with this Archaic period is that the sculpture is a bit unrealistic and slightly stylized in a geometric way. This means that the style of the Archaic period was to make the sculptures look kind of "blocky" and unrealistic. A later period that occurred during the Ancient Greek civilization is the "Classic Period" which lasted from circa 500 BCE -350 BCE. The main characteristics are that the sculptures look lifelike or realistic. So both the "periods" belong to the Ancient Greek Civilization. The main difference between period and civilization is that period is a kind of style that is a subset of a civilization. Civilizations go through many periods of development and a civilization is located in one geographic region and spans a longer time.
The next passage is a contextual analysis of the Augustus of Primaporta.
The portrait of Augustus of Primaporta is work of political propaganda. Augustus waged an extremely profitable series of wars and was able to extend the Roman Empire's borders. His ability to control the Senate maintained his status of unchallenged power within the Roman city as well. The unnaturally tall height of the statue is symbolic of the god-like status of Augustus because the average height was around five feet. The statue of Augustus is a correction of an even earlier sculpture called the Aulus Metellus.
Augustus's raised right arm symbolic of his abilities as a master orator and refers and builds on the iconography of Etruscan portrayals of great statesman such as depicted by the Aulus Metellus. The raised arm, a symbol of rhetorical power as a speaker is combined with the bronze staff and armor are references to the abilities that any Roman leader should possess. In some ways, this is the originating idea of our conception of the "Renaissance Man" of the 1500's. The references to the Aulus Metellus statue, the contrapposto pose (invented by the classical Greek culture) and the Cupid (representing Augustus as a descendent of the gods) grant both the Augustus Primaporta, and Augustus himself, an authority based in time honored traditions.

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Art Appreciation: What is considered good art, or quality art?

What is considered good art, or quality art?

I got asked this question this morning so I thought I'd post it here.

I am looking at artists like Theodore Bradley or Niclas Castello for example that mimic that idea of Jean Michel Basquiat. What about those two artists is it that people say that they have great art?

I know a lot about Basquiat but I wasn’t aware of the other two artists you mentioned so I googled them. I must say I’m not very impressed with either of them in terms of my own opinion. But it is just an opinion. So let me support my ideas and opinions with my rationale.

What makes Basquiat a very good artist are several things which include the physical form, the ideas in the art, and his placement in the context of the art world in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In terms of his ideas first, Basquiat was working with a lot of art historical notions such as the Gestalt or collective unconscious. He combined words images texts and even a little bit of contemporary culture in his art along with some biographical notions of who he was as a black man living in the United States. Some of the stuff has political overtones some of it is just stream of consciousness. However, the way he introduced his art to the public or the context that surrounds him is one of the things that created his acceptance and popularity in the art world.

When Basquiat came on the art scene he’d already been living in New York for most of his life and was really part of the New York avant-garde. He introduced the majority of his work by making it public art as a form of graffiti that was very different from the other graffiti writers and artists of the same time. He also hung out in New York with people who were already known as important people in the art scene. All of that combined with the physical qualities of his work made him and his work popular.

The physical qualities of his work really tie in with a lot of art historical ideas starting with the abstract expressionists in action painters like Pollock and deKooning. He experimented with found objects and with nontraditional art materials very much like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. He wasn’t interested in traditional drawing skills and he also wasn’t interested in traditional representation in terms of art history from the 19th century and earlier. He embraced his awkward drawing skills and his improvisational use of art materials.

I don’t think that many artists have been able to establish a reputation by a mimicking or emulating other artists without being very unique.Theodore Bradley is really mimicking Basquiat in his personal appearance and some of his content and symbols but they are really not good paintings because he is trying to draw almost realistically but doesn’t have the skill, and also unable to commit to the abstraction that Basquiat did.

Theodore Bradley   Google Search

Niclas Castello Almost seems like he is mimicking Jeff Koons and Jasper Johns. However, I don’t think he is well-known because he’s almost like a third-generation copy of the pop art movement.

Niclas Castello   Google Search

Of course, all of the stuff above is just my opinion based on some things that I know about art history and the art world.


New Arts in Corrections opportunity for arts providers!
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FEBRUARY 09, 2018

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Opportunity: Arts in Corrections RFP

The California Arts Council is now accepting proposals from arts organizations interested in providing arts programming to inmates at state adult correctional facilities. Questions regarding the RFP must be submitted by February 27 at 5:00 p.m. PST. The final deadline for proposals is March 26 at 5:00 p.m. PST. Get the details in our press release.

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