During the second half of the 1950s, Jasper Johns was a one-man artistic revolution. His paintings stripped away all the givens of art, of representation, of the new-found theories of self-expression on canvas. At the same time, they invited us to address the picture itself, to look at it as an object, to scrutinise the surface, to inspect the paint. Painted in 1959, Figure 4 is a vital part of this assault, combining the motif of the numeral-- which had been part of his arsenal for several years-- with a new painterly quality which muddied the boundaries between objects and objectivity, throwing the entire nature of representation into question.
Johns' so-called "Figure Paintings" were the result of a variety of ideas, experiences and influences. Johns himself claimed that the notion of these works was a perversely literal reaction to de Kooning's figure paintings. Johns' numerals, like his Flags and Maps, are also sometimes linked to the mindless routines of his life during his time in the Army, as well as to his artistic experiences-- for instance with poster-making and cartography-- while he was serving. At the same time, Figure 4 shows a collagist's influence. The number has been taken from the real world and captured on the canvas, echoing the Cubist still life paintings of Picasso, Braque and Gris half a century earlier. The newspaper background visible through the encaustic in Figure 4 adds a visual texture, an overt collage element. This oblique use of a technique pioneered by Picasso, Braque and Gris is made all the more intriguing by the fact that Figure 4 combines genuine collage, echoing the Cubists, who would sometimes paint a newspaper within their works, on other occasions pasting on clippings, bridging the gap between the real and the represented worlds.
This play with notions of representation, appropriation, and reality has informed almost all of Johns' works. Just as his Flag not only appeared to show a flag but also was a flag, so too in Figure 4 we see the number 4. Presented as it is here, within the context of an artwork, it is unclear whether it has been written or represented. For this is a basic and elemental fragment of our reality, of our lexicon, of our world. Any person familiar with the Western numeral system knows this number, emblazoned in bold color on the canvas, celebrated like an icon. It is instantly recognisable, infinitely versatile, and as such becomes a form of readymade. Discussing his use of numerals as subjects, Johns has stated that, "They seemed to me preformed, conventional, depersonalised, factual, exterior elements" (J. Johns quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2002, p. 151).
This interest in using fact, in taking something entirely objective as his subject matter, something so perfectly finite, was revolutionary. There is no room for the personal anguish or expression of the Abstract Expressionists. "I'm interested in things which suggest the world rather than suggest the personality," he explained.
"I'm interested in things which are rather than in judgments. The most conventional things, the most ordinary things-- it seems to me that those things can be dealt with without having to judge them; they seem to me to exist as clear facts not involving aesthetic hierarchy" (J. Johns quoted in R. Francis, Modern Masters: Jasper Johns, New York, London & Paris, 1991, p. 21).
With the numerals that he selected as his subject matter, Johns increased this sense of the given, of the pre-conceived subject, by choosing stencilled images that somehow gave the sense that they were the perfect, generic embodiments of the number that they conveyed. In Figure 4, this is clear in the newspaper-print-like font that Johns has used to render the numeral. Discussing such sources, Johns said, "That's what I like about them, that they come that way" (J. Johns quoted in Francis, Ibid., p. 29).
Ironically, Figure 4 pre-dates by a few years Johns' extensive reading of the works of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. In taking a simple numeral, one of the simplest building-blocks of our thought systems, and enshrining it on the surface of the canvas, he begs us to look both at the picture as an object, and also at the number itself. Johns, in a manner that parallels some of the writings of Wittgenstein, is questioning the nature of "4," the arbitrary reflex that the viewer shows in looking and instinctively reading it, the strange way in which language applies labels to concepts and objects. Wittgenstein himself had written in terms that apply perfectly to Johns' paintings, especially those showing flags, maps and numerals:
"The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something because it is always before one's eyes.) The real foundations of his inquiry do not strike a man at all. Unless that fact has at some time struck him.-- And this means: we fail to be struck by what is most striking and powerful" (L. Wittgenstein quoted in R. Bernstein, Jasper Johns' Paintings and Sculptures 1954-1974: "The Changing Focus of the Eye", London, 1985, p. 94).
There is nothing integral in the numeral "4" that reflects the concept that it conveys. It is a cipher, and Johns, like Wittgenstein before him, is bringing our attention to that. He is asking us to contemplate the obvious, to seek out the striking nature of "4" from which we are so inured as to be oblivious. As the artist himself explained,
"I am concerned with a thing's not being what it was, with its becoming something other than what it is, with any moment in which one identifies a thing precisely and with the slipping away of that moment, with at any moment seeing or saying and letting it go at that" (J. Johns quoted in "Interview with G.R. Swenson," Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, K. Stiles and P. Selz, eds., Berkeley, Los Angeles & London, 1996, p. 324).
It is precisely by enshrining the numeral on the canvas in Figure 4 that Johns has taken it away from its use and purpose. Now it floats, devoid of context, desperately flailing in its inability to signify.
Intriguingly, while on the one hand this picture of the number 4 brings our focus to the lack of four-ness of the numeral itself, on the other hand Johns is questioning the nature of pictures as objects, of paintings as a means of representing and translating facets of our universe. The entire process of illusion has been removed, replaced by something that appears to be writing. By taking a number as his source in Figure 4, Johns has found the merest pretext for the viewer to look at the entire purpose of painting, of representation. On this level too, Johns is begging us to look at the obvious, forcing us to change the extent to which, as Wittgenstein explained above, 'we fail to be struck by what is most striking and powerful.' In a revelatory moment, Johns is asking us to look at the picture itself, rather than its content.
Johns facilitates this is a shift of focus by covering the surface of Figure 4 in a riot of colour and gesture. Where his earlier works had tended to be either monochrome or to have fairly strict and codified color schemes, this is an explosion of bold and vibrant blues, reds and yellows. The sudden introduction of color into Johns' work occurred in 1959, making Figure 4 one of the first pictures to combine the content with which he had been experimenting for some time-- and which had formed the basis of his success-- with a new method of presentation. Not only is he illustrating the artifice of so many of the works of his predecessors-- he is also celebrating a solution by which he presents us with a picture that is no lie. It contains only paint and truth, and that truth itself is not limited to the overly personal emotions or philosophies which had driven the Abstract Expressionists. Indeed, far from regressing towards Abstract Expressionism-- an accusation that was levelled against the artist by his supporter Alfred H. Barr, Jr. the same year that Figure 4 was painted-- Johns has deliberately introduced this painterly quality in order to conjure a tension between the crisp facticity of its deceptively simple content and the expressive gesturality of the paint surface. That said, the fact that he has slyly deflated the visual pomp and gusto of the Ab Ex artists must have been an added bonus, all the more so in the artistic environment of New York in the late 1950s when legends such as Pollock, Newman and Rothko still purported to rule the avant-garde roost.
Just as Johns' interests in facticity and objecthood mirrored Wittgenstein long before he had even considered reading the works of the Austrian philosopher, so too he was surprised when an early review referred to him as "neo-dada." Johns apparently was unsure what this meant, and therefore researched and read, a path that led him to Marcel Duchamp. By the time Figure 4 was painted in 1959, Johns had read a great deal on Duchamp and had met him several times-- a book in his collection even had an inscription from the French arch-Dadaist from January that year. Johns had devoured monographs on the older artist and, with his friend Robert Rauschenberg, had even travelled to Philadelphia in order to view the Arensberg collection of Duchamp's works.
Even before he had known who Duchamp was, there had been a Duchampian character to his work and certainly his ideas; this direct contact now led to a consolidation of Johns' conceptual foundations, as witnessed in the new use of color in his paintings. His increasing focus on the painting as an object was almost in opposition to some of Duchamp's works, and yet the increasing painterly quality in Johns' pictures from 1959 onwards nonetheless reveals a methodology that owes a great deal to the chess-like manoeuvres of the older artist.
In Figure 4, this influence is already talismanic and tangential, reinforcing rather than directly informing Johns' vision. It is clear in the surface: with only the tiniest exceptions, the entirety of Figure 4 has been painted using a palette has been limited to the primary colours. In this way, Johns manages to pack an almost Fauve visual punch in the picture while also expressly submitting to the pointed constraints of a highly limited colour range. The packed canvas also allows Johns to dissect the act of seeing, as is made all the more complex by Johns' statement for the seminal Sixteen Americans exhibition organised at the MoMA by the legendary curator Dorothy Miller at the end of 1959 (in which he also already praised Duchamp):
"At every point in nature there is something to see. My work contains similar possibilities for the changing focus of the eye...
Generally, I am opposed to painting which is concerned with conceptions of simplicity. Everything looks very busy to me" (J. Johns quoted in Francis, opus cit, 1991, p. 109).
On the one hand, this appears to reflect an almost clinical coolness, the artist deliberately creating a situation in which he fills his work with the texture of the visual universe; on the other hand, this shows a willingness to create a microcosm of nature itself, showing a warmer aspect that is evidenced in the bright colors of Figure 4.
Johns had already titled some of his numeral-based works as Figure X, Y or Z before his acquaintance with Duchamp's works, revealing their shared interest in puns. The title here appears, initially, hermetically sealed, perhaps prefiguring the works of Joseph Kosuth, perfectly describing exactly what the picture shows: Figure 4. Even the numeral is given in the title, not the spelt-out word. Yet after only a tiny bit of scrutiny, this title falls prey to the pitfalls of language, to ambiguity. "Figure," as discussed earlier, has several meanings, allowing extra dimensions to Johns' play with the nature of art and representation. And the number "4" is a homonym, explored by Johns in other titles such as 4 The News and Cups 4 Picasso, whereas in the present work it is left tantalisingly open-ended.
The play on words with the word "Figure" perhaps owes a great deal less to Duchamp or Wittgenstein than it does to the American poet William Carlos Williams. In a poem called, with a play on words which Johns would certainly appreciate, The Great Figure-- perhaps doubling as a reference to the Divine-- he described seeing a fire truck whiz by and the visual impact of the brass number 5 highlighted against its red paintwork. This poem would later be the inspiration for a painting by Williams' friend, the artist Charles Demuth. Painted in 1928 and in the Metropolitan Museum for over half a century, I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold shows the repeated and receding number disappearing in a vortex-like swirl of angles and movement. While the texture and general atmosphere of this work have little to do with Johns, they both grant iconic status to a numeral on the canvas.
This link between friends, puns and numerals would itself be echoed in Johns' own life. Of all his Figures, "4" would become the last number that he used in a work of this series. It was used in several of his works, perhaps showing an emotional significance that belies its supposed conceptual coolness. In this sense, it may relate to the group of four friends, trailblazers of the late 1950s, who would meet together so often in the Cedar Tavern and other such places in downtown New York: Johns, Rauschenberg, and the older Merce Cunningham and John Cage. Cage himself would later reminisce:
"We called Bob and Jasper 'the Southern Renaissance.' Bob was outgoing and ebullient, whereas Jasper was quiet and reflective. Each seemed to pick up where the other left off. The four-way exchanges were quite marvellous. It was the climate of being together that would suggest work to be done for each of us. Each had absolute confidence in out work, each had agreement with the other" (J. Cage, quoted in K. Varnedoe, Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, exh.cat., New York, 1996, p. 125).
Jasper Johns (b. 1930)
Oil, encaustic and collage on canvas
Please note this work was included in the exhibition Magie der Zahl in der Kunst des 20 Jahrhunderts, at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, February-May 1997, p. 76, no. 3.1 (illustrated in color).
Property of Private Collectors
New York, The Jewish Museum, Jasper Johns, February-April 1964, no. 36.
Los Angeles, the Museum of Contemporary Art; Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art and New York, Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art, Hand-Painted Pop: American Art in Transition, 1955-1962, December 1992-October 1993.
The Cleveland Museum of Art and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Jasper Johns: Numbers, October 2003-January 2004, pp. 49 and 92, no. 4 (illustrated in color).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
20¼ x 15½ in. (51.4 x 39.4 cm.)
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1959