Connoisseurs agree that Jasper Johns (born 1930) is one of the most significant and influential US artists of our time – and probably also that he is enigmatic, that he doesn’t like to talk about his art, that he has been experimenting constantly and taken unpredictable turns – not unlike Bob Dylan – and that he is not only a great painter but has also perfected the art of printing in collaborations with fine art printing workshops such as Gemini G E L and United Limited Art Editions, ULAE.
Nan Rosenthal of the Metropolitan Museum of Art writes:
“Together with Rauschenberg and several Abstract Expressionist painters of the previous generation, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Barnett Newman, Johns is one of the most significant and influential American painters of the twentieth century. He also ranks with Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya, Munch, and Picasso as one of the greatest printmakers of any era. In addition, he makes many drawings—unique works on paper, usually based on a painting he has previously painted—and he has created an unusual body of sculptural objects.
If you don’t know him or would like to learn more, here are some very good links about Johns and his art:
Art & Object, May 15, 2020
Jasper Johns turns 90
Harper’s Bazaar, September 13, 2021
The Meaning of Jasper Johns
Numerous works in different categories, prices, biography
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004
Essay by Nan Rosenthal
Avenue, September 2, 2021
The Dual Jasper Johns Exhibits in NYC and Philadelphia
At 91, Jasper Johns may be America’s greatest living artist.
The Collector, August 8, 2020
Jasper Johns: Becoming An All-American Artist
Hailed a forefather of Conceptual, Minimal, and Pop Art, Jasper Johns is often considered one of the most technically talented American artists alive today.
The Royal Academy – Barbara Rose, 2017
Jasper Johns: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.”
The long read.
In the early 1970s, Johns made a number of prints – most of them with tones of grey – which were connected to paintings with the same motif, for instance, “Fool’s House” (1972), here the painting, with physical objects making it three-dimensional to the left, and the print to the right:
My art collecting father, F. W. Oberg (1913-1981), bought some of these grey prints as soon as they were published by Gemini G E L in Los Angeles. So, I have looked at them for almost 50 years. And never tired of them, I can add, which to me is the defining characteristics of true, or classical, art.
One of them hung for a long time in one of the corners of our combined dining and living room. In 2010, my wife Christina and I decided it was time to give its walls a new colour and, starting the work, took down the art pieces decorating that room, including Johns’.
We were surprised to find that the print’s aluminium frame and wire had itself left an image, or imprint, on the wall:
Without any conscious purpose or having an idea, I took this and a few other photos of it mostly because it was funny and unexpected that there was a spontaneous, auto-generated “Behind Jasper Johns” imprint there. And since we had to paint it over, I wanted to have few photos as memory or documentation of that strange natural creation.
A decade passed and I was browsing through some old photos and stumbled upon this somewhat enigmatic image. Perhaps something could be made out of it?
I recognised that, in the original photo, it was rather difficult to see those lines on the wall; there was too little contrast. I chose to make them slightly more visible by adding contrast to the image in “raw” and using, very softly, a thin digital pencil in Photoshop to strengthen those lines and marks. I also played a bit with soft digital brushes to achieve a very subtle version of the brush strokes known from Johns’ works but avoided to fake strokes because there are no strokes in the image of that wall.
I then worked with a tiny brush the whole way around the image to create the characteristic torn-edge feel that Johns had made inside the thin yellowish inner frame (see above) and experimented a lot with this “difficult” yellow tone. Also, in the style of Johns, I used the Stencil font to print “Behind Jasper Johns;” believe it or not, it took me quite some time to place the text where it now is.
Finally, Johns often used images that would break out of the frame, like a portrait of himself, a tool or – as above – a cup. I tried countless images more or less closely related to Johns’ but also to the image of the wall; repetition is one of the elements in his works – as he is often quoted as having said – “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” But nothing worked the way I wanted. Pause. Put away.
A few days later it occurred to me that – of course! – it would be another Jasper Johns work with that circular element breaking out of its image and, thus, balance the upper left lighter corner’s round “shoulder”. To get that right in terms of composition, I had to move the original main image to the right of the paper and leave a larger width to the left and then came the delicate operation: How to place that little image in the lower-left corner – and in what size? This small, inserted image is Johns’ “Evion” from 1972
It should not “touch”, or move into the frame on the wall; its white upper edge would balance the text above and the lower part of that small image would have to be an extension of the edge of the original image. But then how far out to the left? I chose to place it so that, one, the right side of the round “wheel” would be in line with the grey bottom and, two, its top matches the upper line of the bottom part of the frame in the wall image.
To arrive at the final result required hundreds of trials and adjustments – fortunately, easier in Photoshop than if I would have had to paint and paint over again and again.
Having looked at it now for about 9 months, I feel there is harmony and balance. Nothing to change.
In the interview above, Johns says: “Whatever form the work takes—objects or non-objects or one type of mark or division or others—on some level it all ends up as thought. There are weird shifts among object, subject, perceiver, and what’s perceived. And thought can seem of greater concern than the presence of the object. Artists play with what comes into their minds and with the materials at hand, and there is naturally feedback into their minds and into the painting process. So at any moment something may be dropped or brought in.”
I did a lot of thinking about those few objects in this piece. “Behind Jasper Johns” connects my own present efforts with my life-long experience of living with contemporary Western art of the highest calibre.
It’s also a work that seeks to convey my, perhaps amateurish but no less heartfelt, homage to Jasper Johns.
Other works of mine that are inspired by Johns:
A few days after having published this, I stumbled upon this very very interesting analysis of some of Johns’ works, Jill Johnston on Jasper Johns, in Art In America, October 1, 2021. I recommend it highly. There is also this very illuminating encounter between Johns and M. H. Miller in the New York Times on February 18, 2019.