Updated: Apr 20, 2020
Jasper Johns is best known for his more minimal works, like Flag which is arguably his most famous work, but he’s associated with several movements. Johns has been called a neo-dadaist, his work has been lumped in with abstract expressionism, and even though he was more of an inspiration for the movement than an active participant, he’s associated with pop-art as well. He’s by no means had a short career, born in 1930, Johns is still kicking today at 89 and has put out new work as recently as 2013.
While Johns has had incredible success as an artist and paved the way for several massive artistic movements, in a lot of ways his work is criminally underrated. Often overshadowed by the juggernauts of particular movements, Rauschenberg in abstract expressionism and Warhol in pop art for example, Johns has typically existed as the number two artist or the friend of the big guy who also makes art. Perhaps this is why Johns’s more minimal work is his most recognized, it doesn’t have any big competition. But while today’s subject had a lot of competition, as it fell under the umbrella of abstract expressionism, it’s a true marvel of Johns’s career. According to What (1964) is an incredible piece of work, my personal favorite of his, and perhaps the most underrated Johns in existence.
The massive 7x16” amalgamation of canvases towers over the viewer, forcing them to both step back and walk along to the piece to truly take in every element. To me, this piece speaks to the artist, the hassle and hectic nature of making. Working from the middle out this piece unveils the basics of artistic creation, starting with what appears to be a clean and simple color palette and divulging into the several layers of applying, mixing, and blending. The influence from Rauschenberg is clear in this piece as the paint is applied in a manner similar to his work of the mid-60’s. Color is strewn and mashed about the canvases in a way that from a distance may seem sporadic, but there’s an underlayer of control, color may be placed frantically but it never breaks a certain barrier, it never overlaps too heavily with other colors. It almost feels like a palette, one that reflects the continuing frustration with the making process. Color is placed cleanly, then blended, then more frantically placed down showing the struggles of creation. Johns even implores sculptural elements, adding letters that spell out “Red,” “Yellow,” “Blue,” which of course are the primary colors, the initial framework of all painting. The color “statues,” if you will, are a further example of frustration as they start to tumble and collapse as they work their way down the canvas. Johns even reflects on his older works with his coat hanger stencil sitting atop a blank canvas in the bottom right.
This piece speaks to the creative experience and culminates with Johns revealing himself in the left of the canvas. At the top is a chair with half of a mold of seated legs, black pours down the canvas to the bottom, almost as if Johns has broken himself open and poured all of what he has into this work. Finally, and in a total exposure of the artistic process, Johns turns the last canvas, in the bottom left around so to show his signature and the piece title.
Now this may not be a totally accurate description of the piece, but is any art analyzing? This piece has always spoken to me as a maker, it gives insight to the artist and expresses something that isn’t easy for the artist to express. Johns is by no means the quintessential abstract expressionist, but he needs to be injected further into the conversation because works like this show how much he could tell in a work. I’ve spent hours standing in front of this massive painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and even though I think I’ve taken all of it in time and again, I always find something new to marvel at.