Jasper Johns knew as a child that he wanted to be an artist, but not until he moved to New York in the late 1940s did he begin to achieve his goal. After a brief stint at Parsons School of Design, he served in the Korean War from 1951 to 1953, and then returned to New York. Once back, Johns supported himself by painting storefronts while taking part in the city’s rich arts scene. He became acquainted with composer John Cage, artist Robert Rauschenberg and choreographer Merce Cunningham, all of whom were central figures in New York’s cultural world. In addition to the influence of Cage’s social circle, Duchamp’s famous work The Large Glass also made a powerful impression on Johns, leading to a deeper interest in Dadaism and Duchamp.
Johns’ breakthrough as one of the most important artist of the 1950s and 60s occurred in 1958, when gallerist Leo Castelli visited Rauschenberg’s studio. There, Castelli saw some of Johns’ paintings hanging next to works by Rauschenberg, and he immediately arranged an exhibition for the 28-year-old Johns. MoMA bought three pieces for its collection, and a brilliant future as an artist lay ahead of Johns. Fame descended overnight, and his entrance into the art world was undeniable.
Flags, maps, numbers and letters that appear two-dimensionally on the flat surface of the canvas are characteristic features of Johns’ work. The simple motifs in combination with spaceless color combinations took his work in a new direction, away from the abstract expressionism that had long dominated modern art. Johns’ style, occasionally called Neo-dadaist, paved the way for minimalism and pop art. Flag from 1954 to 1955, which depicts an American flag, is one of Johns’ best-known paintings and a typical example of his treatment of motif, color and material. The piece consists of a base panel of collaged newspapers, which Johns rapidly painted over with a transparent, viscous wax paint. From a distance, the painting appears to be an ordinary picture of the American flag. But up close, the viewer can see the newsprint collage peeking through from underneath. Johns’ images of flags and maps, for example, whose importance is well established among the public, tend to neutralize conventional symbols by questioning what separates image from reality. According to the artist himself, many of his works are able to create meaning via their very existence as works of art.
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