Jasper Johns was born in 1930 in Augusta, Georgia. He attended the University of South Carolina, Columbia, but left after a year and a half (1947–48) to pursue an artistic career in New York, where he went to Parsons School of Design for one semester in 1949 before dropping out and supporting himself as a messenger and shipping clerk. Johns was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1951 and served for two years in South Carolina and Japan. On his return to New York in 1953, Johns enrolled in Hunter College on the GI Bill, but soon ceased his studies and began working in an uptown bookstore, where he met artist Sari Dienes and art historian Suzi Gablik. Through them he met composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and artist Robert Rauschenberg.
Johns’s relationships with these three figures, and especially with Rauschenberg, provided a sustaining intellectual exchange that became the foundation of his artistic development. In 1954, as a sign of his commitment to creating original work, Johns destroyed all of the paintings and drawings he had made up to that point. Both he and Rauschenberg were inspired by Cage’s aesthetic theories of indeterminacy and chance, as well as Marcel Duchamp’s idea of the readymade. Together they bucked the dominant trend of Abstract Expressionism by including everyday images and materials in their works. Using a wax encaustic technique to create sensuous, tactile surfaces, Johns painted familiar signs such as targets, numerals, and the American flag—which he described as “things the mind already knows.”¹ In January 1958, Johns had a critically acclaimed exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery, and his assemblage Target with Four Faces (1954) appeared on the cover of Artnews along with an article on Johns that coined the term “Neo-Dada” (later applied to Rauschenberg as well). As Pop art took shape over the course of the 1960s, the “Neo-Dada” label was replaced with “proto-Pop,” in a shift that acknowledges the wide-ranging influence Johns and Rauschenberg had on a generation of artists.
Although perhaps best known for his paintings, Johns has worked extensively in ink on plastic, as well as experimenting relentlessly with lithography, etchings, and monoprints. He is also celebrated for his sculptures of lightbulbs and other everyday objects. In the 1980s, the imagery in his work began to include his personal possessions and art-historical interests, among them a commemorative Queen Elizabeth II silver jubilee vase, the Mona Lisa, and details of the 16th-century Isenheim Altarpiece by Mathias Grünewald. This more personal symbolism represents a shift in focus from the universal symbolism of his early work.
Johns’s first museum solo exhibition took place at the Jewish Museum, New York (1964). Numerous monographic presentations have followed, including a major traveling exhibition organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1977), and a retrospective organized by the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1996). His most recent museum retrospective was organized in 2012 by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Johns is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 1988, the same year he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2011 Johns was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, becoming the first visual artist in 34 years to receive this distinction. Johns currently lives and works in Connecticut and on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin.
1. Jasper Johns, quoted in “Art: His Heart Belongs to DADA,” Time, May 4, 1959, p. 58.