Museum  May 15, 2020  Sheila Regan

Jasper Johns turns 90

Photo by John Lund, courtesy Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns working in his painting studio, Sharon Connecticut, 2013.

On May 15, legendary American artist Jasper Johns celebrates his 90th birthday, an opportune time to reflect on his legacy as well as his impact on the art world. 

“If you want a role model as a young artist on how you go to your studio every day, and make something and just keep at it, he’s the one,” says Joan Rothfuss, curator of the traveling exhibition, An Art of Changes: Jasper Johns Prints, 1960–2018, on view at the Walker Art Center. “He’s worked in several different media and he's found a way to become a virtuoso in all of them. One hates to make statements like this, but he's probably one of the greatest printmakers that has lived in the 20th century.”

© Jasper Johns/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Jasper Johns, Flags I, 1973. Screenprint on paper.

Jasper Johns defied most categories of contemporary art. “People tried at the time to slot him and [Robert] Rauschenberg into something they called Neo-Dada— they figured this was anti-art,” Rothfuss says. "But that really wasn't what he was doing either.” 

Instead, Johns forged his own journey as he investigated pictorial structures and images. “Once he gained his renown, people were just interested in what is he going to do next,” Rothfuss says. “He's got a career path that doesn't fit into anything.”

© Jasper Johns/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Jasper Johns, Target, 1974. Screenprint on paper.

Johns began his career not long after he had spent a year or two in the military during the Korean War. He was part of a group of friends that included John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and his creative collaborator and partner Rauschenberg. 

“It was this sort of cool aesthetic,” Rothfuss says of the four artists in the avant grade downtown scene. “’This is not about me. It's not about my emotions.’ This is how Cunningham did his dance is how Cage composes music—it really grew out of that.”

© Jasper Johns/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Jasper Johns, Untitled, 2000. Linocut on paper.

Rothfuss, an independent curator based in Minneapolis, engaged with Johns’ work first in graduate school and again during her time as a curator at the Walker, from 1988-2006. In her first year, the museum acquired a collection of every one of Johns’ prints, an acquisition which has grown, because Johns sends a copy of every print he has made since.

Rothfuss’ conceptual framework for the exhibition is the translation of media, including the translation of his paintings into print and sculptural works. As a whole, the exhibition outlines Johns’ practice of taking images—either from popular culture, his own earlier works, or, later in his career, the work of other artists—and transforming them.

© Jasper Johns and U.L.A.E./VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Jasper Johns, Savarin, 1977. Lithograph on paper.

“The imagery that made him famous in the late ‘50s was flags, targets, the numerals zero through nine, and the alphabet,” Rothfuss says."He called these motifs ‘things the mind already knows,’ meaning these are common motifs that people see in their lives all the time. They didn't require any interpretation.”

Using imagery that was easily understood by people solved a lot of problems for Johns, because he didn’t have to invent his imagery. “He could use it to work, as he said, ‘on other levels.’” Rothfuss says. 

Those other levels have to do with process, pictorial structure, and “how our minds and eyes work together to help us understand what we're looking at,” Rothfuss says.

© Jasper Johns and U.L.A.E./VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, Published by Universal Limited Art Editions

Jasper Johns, Scent, 1975-76. Lithograph, linocut, and woodcut on handmade paper.

Johns would also incorporate objects and rudimentary tools from his studio for inspiration. Later, he played with abstract textures like clustered parallel lines, as well as patterns of irregular polygon shapes. Then, beginning in the 1980s, Johns began to incorporate images from other artists into his work. 

“He’s starting to try and set himself into a trajectory of art history,” Rothfuss says of Johns’ visual quotations. “He’s looking back at certain artists. He has quoted from Picasso extensively, but also Manet, Hans Holbein, Matthias Grünewald, and Cezanne.”

© Jasper Johns and U.L.A.E./VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, Published by Universal Limited Art Editions

Jasper Johns, Untitled, 2018. Intaglio with chine-collé.

That may be in part because as Jasper approached 60, Johns began thinking about his own mortality. “He said that that's the time when he started to feel old, like he was approaching his end,” Rothfuss says. “Now he's 90, so it’s obviously not true.” 

Looking back on his work, it may be tempting to make certain associations. Were his flags a response to the McCarthy era?  Were his targets alluding to the Vietnam war? What about his explorations of Edvard Munch’s memento mori painting, Self-Portrait between the Clock and the Bed (1940–43), was that grappling with the AIDS crisis?

Johns has not offered hints. “Jasper Johns doesn’t explain his work,” Rothfuss says. 

Rather, his legacy of formal ingenuity continues to be open for interpretation, and that’s ok. “He is endlessly inventive,” Rothfuss says. “And the iconic nature of those early images [is] still revolutionary.”

About the Author

Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan is a freelance journalist and arts and dance critic based in Minneapolis. She regularly writes about dance for the Star Tribune, in addition to writing for local and regional publications such as City Pages, Minnesota Monthly, and the Southwest Journal. Her byline has appeared in Hyperallergic, ArtForum, Artnet News, Bomb, LitHub, High Country News, as well as the Washington Post and The Lily.

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