For Johns, choice of 'subject' is revelatory of his entire aesthetic spirit. Beginning in the mid-1950s, Johns adopted a markedly objective style that stressed the complex semiotics of art as object and art as practice. Focusing on `signs' and `symbols', Johns explored art's ability to communicate and the viewer's ability to perceive. From this starting point, all aspects of Johns' art of the 1950s and 1960s focused on this act of intellectual investigation; medium, pictorial language and execution of the work all served to engage the artist and the viewer in the phenomena of artistic expression. Gray Numbers of 1957 is one of the early masterworks of this important period for the artist. Fittingly, for over 40 years, the painting was in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art's first curator, Dorothy Miller, who witnessed and aided Johns' early rise to prominence in 1958. In March 1957, Leo Castelli, who had just recently opened his gallery, met Johns and viewed his work, offering the young artist a show on the spot – his first one-man show - and, as Castelli said, "My gallery really began with the Johns show in 1958 ... That show is the basic fact of my career" (Susan Cheever, "Johns & Castelli, Inc.", Harpers Bazaar, January 1993, p. 78). The present work was included in the Castelli show in January-February 1958, and Johns' career was catapulted onto the international stage. The measure of this success lies in the fact that, on January 25th 1958, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., then Director of the Museum of Modern Art, acquired no less than three paintings from the show for the museum. Dorothy Miller accompanied Barr to the Castelli exhibition – she had already visited Johns' studio earlier and, with her unerring curatorial eye, was planning to include Johns in one of her ground-breaking shows at MOMA, Sixteen Americans in 1959. While Barr purchased works for the museum and a small painting for himself, Miller was delighted to acquire Gray Numbers for herself.
Johns wanted to work with phenomena that were so familiar as to be almost invisible. As such, his art was in contradiction to the emotive outpourings of Abstract Expressionism that dominated the art world throughout the 1950s. There was distance, reserve even with Johns' thoughtful approach to painting, and his subject matter was appropriately neutral. Numbers, like Johns other `signs', are "pre-formed, conventional, de-personalized, factual, exterior elements" (Johns in David Sylvester, Jasper Johns Drawings, London, 1974, p. 7). For Johns, a `sign' provided him with a 'ready made' design that did not require any compositional invention. This was the perfect 'thing the mind already knows' which triggered many related ideas and allowed him to work on 'other levels' (as the artist has often said). By using the 'found' design, Johns created an image so familiar that it was seen but not looked at.
Johns also chose objects whose image could be precisely measured onto the canvas ("... an object identified by its fixed proportions" as Michael Crichton puts it [Jasper Johns, New York, 1994, p. 30]). While the initial paintings were relegated to the one flag or number or letter, Johns soon employed grid compositions to further fix the limits of his painting as an object. The grid appears as early as the Construction with Toy Piano from 1954, one of the few early works that Johns did not destroy prior to embarking on the Flag painting of that year which revolutionized his oeuvre. The Cubist collage surface and the vertical keys of this diminutive object suggest the grids to follow. In the case of numerals, Johns initially made four small paintings in 1955 of a single number executed in a creamy white encaustic over newspaper collage. Single numerals, called `figures' would continue in various sizes and colors from 1957 through to the 1970s. In 1957, Johns painted the first number grids, White Numbers (Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York) and the present Gray Numbers. Johns would paint a larger Gray Numbers (67 x 49 ½ inches) in 1958 followed by a Small Gray Numbers (5 x 3 ½ inches) in 1959-1961, while painting other numbers in white and in vibrant bursts of red, yellow and blue. Roberta Bernstein notes that "In 1958, Johns painted 0-9 (0 To 9) in white encaustic and collage. The numbers are arranged in two rows, 0 to 4 and 5 to 9, so that a horizontal field is made out of the smaller, vertically rectangular units. Each unit is handled like an individual Figure painting, but at the same time it is an inextricable part of the whole (like the grid modules in the Numbers)". (R. Bernstein, Things the Mind Already Knows: Jasper Johns' Painting and Sculptures, 1954-1974, Ann Arbor, 1975, pp. 49-50). The 0 to 9 works lead to the 0 through 9 paintings and drawings in which the numbers are superimposed one atop the other in an optical stack that further abstracts the individual signs into a compositional whole. The numerals undergo several transformations, demonstrating Johns' ambition to record as many variations of a predetermined pattern of an image, calling to mind his famous self instruction: "Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it."
Through Johns' choice of encaustic, the painted support becomes more than the numbers depicted, simultaneously morphing between the familiar and unfamiliar. This dichotomy between presentation and representation - between the Image and its Index - draws Johns' viewer into the drama of the meanings of his paintings. In the encrusted, heavily worked surface, the viewer can indulge the eye and delight simply in the sheer beauty of Johns' chosen medium. As David Sylvester wrote, "...marks of varying tempo, weight and direction caress and bruise and elaborate and disrupt and erode the familiar forms of everyday objects" (Ex. Cat., London, Anthony d'Offay Gallery, Jasper Johns' Flags 1955-1994, 1996, p. 12). Just like Cézanne, Johns applied paint with short, staccato marks, distinguished from each other tonally. Leo Steinberg made the connection between the two luminaries in 1962: "..Cézanne used to paint, in broken planes composed of adjacent values; imparting pictorial flatness to things which the mind knows to be atmospheric and spatial. Johns, with that same type of brush work that hovers midway between opaque canvas and spatial illusion, does the reverse: allowing an atmospheric suggestion to things the mind knows to be flat." (Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, New York, 1972, p. 52). Johns challenges the viewer's preconceptions about the status of an aesthetic object; he makes us really look at the subject.
Gray Numbers is a sumptuous declaration of this theme. Johns would heat wax until it would liquefy and then add colored pigments – in this case variations on the tones of gray. This substance was then laboriously applied to the canvas seeming to inform the reserved style of the painting: as Adrian Searle wrote, "He ... froze the brushstroke, turning the drip ... into something arrested and impassive." ("The Pop Artist Who Ate Himself", The Guardian, London, 20th July, 2004). The wax encaustic suspends in time the varied speed, weight, tempo and movement of his brushwork, perhaps, organized as if by 'chance' (like John Cage's music). This also heightens a number of polarities within Johns' own mark making: as in Gray Numbers, clusters of encaustic form yet melt; tighten and then expand; appear and disappear.
The complete triumvirate in Johns' artistic lexicon of the 1950s is `signs', encaustic and color. Johns explored the artistic possibilities presented by the trinity of red, yellow and blue, complemented by glorious works that resound in one color; the fusion of both ends of the spectrum – gray. The use of monochromatic gray is the ultimate act of negation or subtraction, as well as the definitive means by which the artist declares the ``objectness'' of the painting. In describing his first flag paintings, Johns made the critical point in 1959 about color in his work - ``I have always thought of a painting as a surface, painting it in one color made this very clear''. (``His Heart Belongs to Dada'', Time 73, 4 May 1959, p. 58) The importance of monochromism in Johns' oeuvre was crystallized in the 2007-2008 exhibition Jasper Johns Gray at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. As James Rondeau wrote in the catalogue, ``Often [Johns'] preferences are made manifest through essentially additive processes... through strategies of accumulation, repetition, and quotation. .. At other times, effect is achieved through a more determined, subtractive process, distilled as a language of forms, gestures and objects in the absence of color.'' (p. 23)
Gray Numbers was included in this exhibition and epitomizes Johns' mastery of nuanced gray at its very inception. Divested of color, the encaustic marks become even more profound on the surface; their distinction between slow, gentle, organized and haphazard, contrasting in tone only. This lends more physical and intellectual resonance to the painted surface. Johns was not singular in the practice of reducing his palette so that other physical properties would take precedence - Kline and Pollock were his most immediate forebears. But his use of monochromism is more akin to formalist Modernists such as Piet Mondrian. Both were aesthetically reductive across their entire pictorial practice. Johns was familiar with Mondrian's strict grids and his gray paintings such as Composition with Grid 7 (1919) which appeared in shows at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York throughout the 1950s. From this point, Johns would proceed to use gray to distill the ultimate subject of his art – painting in its essence.
In a 1965 interview, Johns stated, ``The canvas is object, the paint is object, and object is object.'' (David Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, 2001, p. 167). Gray dematerialized objects collaged onto his paintings as in Canvas (1956, Collection of the artist), or it dematerialized the `sign' of the object as in Gray Numbers. Johns also used gray in three-dimensions with his early sculptures from 1958-1959 such as The Critic Sees (1961) which were created in sculpmetal. As a negotiation in equivalents, gray has no peer in the color spectrum and is optically unique. Other colors have variable reflectance, absorbing or reflecting light rays that consequently allow the eye to perceive a single color. Gray has a uniform spectral reflectance. It also is alone among colors in producing no afterimage, making it the most literal of colors and the ideal tool for such a literal artist. Johns, in essence, employs recognizable `signs' such as numbers so the viewer will engage with the ``sign'', the surface and its process of realization – that is the 'number', the 'painting' and 'the-painting-of-the-number'. The use of gray as a neutral color rendered the gap between the 'thing' and its 'representation' smaller (and more complex) for Johns.
Encaustic on canvas
New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, Jasper Johns, January – February 1958
New York, The Jewish Museum, Jasper Johns, February – April 1964, cat. no. 20, p. 39, illustrated
New York, New School Art Center, Museum Leaders Collect: Selections from the Private Collections of Ten New York Museum Directors and Curators, April – May 1970, cat. no. 51
New York, Rosa Esman Gallery, A Curator's Choice, 1942-1963: A Tribute to Dorothy Miller, February – March 1982
Northampton, Smith College Museum of Art, Dorothy C. Miller with an Eye to American Art, April – June 1985, cat. no. 27
Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago; New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jasper Johns: Gray, November 2007 – May 2008, cat. no. 56, illustrated in color
28 x 22 in. 71.1 x 55.8 cm.
Roberta M. Bernstein, Jasper Johns Paintings and Sculptures, 1954 – 1974: The Changing Focus of the Eye, Ann Arbor, 1975, pp. 25 and 151
Exh. Cat., Cleveland, Cleveland Museum of Art (and travelling), Jasper Johns: Numbers, 2003 (catalogue raisonné of Numbers in all media)
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC# 27)
Dorothy C. Miller Collection, New York (acquired from the above in 1958)
Christie's New York, November 11, 2003, Lot 15
Acquired by the present owner from the above