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 RenĂ© 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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