Johns's paintings of numbers and alphabets are among his most original and influential works. Along with his images of targets and flags (fig. 1), they marked a radical break both from the gestural lyricism of Abstract Expressionism and from the European tradition of Picasso and other modern masters. Johns, perhaps more than any other artist of his generation, brought about a paradigm shift in the development of modern art; without his works of the 1950s, the later course of painting and sculpture--especially minimalism and pop--indubitably would have had a different and less fertile development.
Between 1955 and 1959, Johns made two series of paintings of numbers. In the first series, he represented only one number per canvas (fig. 2); in the second series, beginning in 1957, he depicted all the numbers from 0 to 9 which he arranged sequentially in large 11 by 11 grids (with one space in each row left blank). Typically, he painted his number and alphabet pictures in restricted, almost monochromatic, palettes. More often than not, he used encaustic--pigment suspended in beeswax. He may have selected this unusual medium for its plasticity and viscosity, which gives his paintings a thick, dense texture. Their matte surfaces increase the physicality and the immediacy of these pictures: one looks at a Johns painting, not into it.
Johns made two number paintings in 11 by 11 grids in 1957. These were purchased almost immediately, one by Alfred Barr for The Museum of Modern Art and the other by the curator Dorothy Miller. He made seven other examples, including a polychrome version in 1958-59 (fig. 3). The Ganz White Numbers is one of the last paintings in the series, although Johns occasionally returned to this subject later in his career. In addition, he made drawings, a lithograph, and two sculpmetal reliefs of numbers.
Regarding the origin of these works, Johns later told Walter Hopps:
The first number paintings were just single figures... Then I saw a chart. You know the Gray Alphabet painting (fig. 4). I saw a chart in a book that had that arrangement of the alphabet. Then I of course realized I could do the numbers that way too. (M. Kozloff, Jasper Johns, New York, 1967, p. 18)
In a famous statement, Johns explained that he sought as the subjects of his paintings at that time "things that the mind already knows. That gave me room to work on other levels" (Ibid., p 15). And the press release for Johns's first one-man exhibition in 1958 at Leo Castelli's gallery stated:
Numbers and letters are presented in series as though they were typeset in a printer's shop. Johns restores to these mass-produced and much abused symbols their original impact.
(Quoted in S. Brundage, Jasper Johns: 35 Years at Leo
Castelli, New York, 1994, unpaginated)
The first critic to respond positively to Johns's work was Robert Rosenblum. He wrote:
To explain the fascination of these works, one might refer to their disarming arrangements of customary aesthetic and practical responses, but one should also mention the commanding sensuous presence of their primer-like imagery, which has the rudimentary, irreducible potency of the best of Abstract Expressionism. And not least, there is Johns's elegant craftsmanship...which lends these pictures the added poignancy of a beloved handmade transcription of unloved, machine-like images. (Quoted in S. Brundage, Jasper Johns: 35 Years Leo Castelli, New York, 1994)
Nevertheless much of the initial critical reception of Johns's work was negative or quizzical. Most critics believed, in accordance with modernist theory, that art's primary concerns should be gesture, style and expression--not content--yet it was the content of Johns's pictures that they found baffling and disconcerting. Why letters, numbers and targets? And why such direct and literal presentation?
In his brilliant essay on early Johns--an essay that the artist himself admired--Leo Steinberg helped to explain the fascination of these pictures and the problems they caused for the traditional understanding of the goals of contemporary art:
Johns's pictures are situations wherein the subjects are constantly lost and found, submerged and recovered. He regains that perpetual oscillation which characterized our looking at pre-abstract art. But whereas, in traditional art, the oscillation was between the painted surface and the subject in depth, Johns succeeds in making the pendulum swing within the flatland of post-Abstract Expressionist art. Yet the habit of dissociating "pure painting" from content is so ingrained that almost no critic wanted to see both together. (L. Steinberg, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth Century Art, New York, 1972, p. 25)
As William Rubin has explained:
All Johns's favorite subjects share an emblematic or sign character... Thus the paradox lies in Johns's reversal of the usual process of representation, by which a three-dimensional form from the real world is represented as a two-dimensional illusion. Johns gives his two-dimensional signs greater substance, weight, and texture than they had in reality; in other words, he turns them into objects. (W. Rubin, Art International, Jan. 1960, p. 26)
Steinberg asked Johns about his choice of stencils for numbers:
Q: You nearly always use this same type. Any particular reason?
A: That's how the stencils come.
Q: But if you preferred another typeface, would you think it improper to cut your own stencils?
A: Of course not.
Q: Then you really do like these best?
Q: Do you use these letter types because you like them or because that's how the stencils come?
A: But that's what I like about them, that they come that way.
Steinberg is trying to determine if Johns's choice of letter forms could be forced to establish a distinction between Life and Art, a subject that was of great concern to Rauschenberg at this date (see 22 Lily White; fig. 5).
I asked whether the painter entertained an aesthetic preference for these crude stenciled forms. Johns answers that he will not recognize the distinction. He knows that letters of more striking design do exist or can be made to exist. But they would be Art. And what he likes about those stencils is that they are Art not quite yet. He is the realist for whom preformed subject matter is a condition of painting. (L. Steinberg, op. cit., p. 33)
Michael Crichton makes an important distinction between the numbers and the other objects that Johns found and used. He describes the flags and targets as having "a reference to a physical object in the environment..."; he continues:
But numbers are different. Numbers exist only in the imagination. We write them every day, we use them all the time, but they remain stubbornly abstract in a peculiar way. Johns paints his numbers as if they had some inherent concrete reality--and indeed the very act of painting produes a kind of concrete reality. (M. Crichton, J. Johns, New York, 1994, p. 32)
In each case the commentators presume that Johns is reducing his means in order to construct an art that is more literal and concrete. As Leo Steinberg has explained:
In his home-grown morality, which makes it unethical to turn things away from themselves, a painting must be what it represents. Paint is paint, and numbers are numbers, and you can have a painted numbering in which each term is only itself. You can also have objects with paint on them. What you cannot have is a painted landscape, where the landscape is counterfeit and the paint is disguised. (L. Steinberg, op. cit., p. 42)
This new art challenged critical assumptions of Abstract Expressionism, and propelled the debate about the nature of art in a new direction, taking it beyond the traditional concerns of art theory into the province of Wittgenstein and analytic philosophy. In effect, it opens the possibility of a post-modern understanding of what had previously been a strictly self-referential debate about modern art, and does so within the terms of the classic modernist description. Simply put, these works mark the inauguration of an original conception of art that places new demands upon the viewer. As Steinberg so eloquently wrote:
What I am saying is that Johns puts two flinty things in a picture and makes them work against one another so hard that the mind is sparked. Seeing them becomes thinking. (L. Steinberg, op. cit., p. 54)
(fig. 1) Jasper Johns, White Flag
(fig. 2) Jasper Johns, Figure 5, 1959
Musae national d'art moderne, centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
Gift of the Scaler Foundation
(fig. 3) Jasper Johns, Numbers in Color, 1958-59
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo
Gift of Seymour H. Knox
(fig. 4) Jasper Johns, Gray Alphabets, 1956
The Menil Collection, Houston
(fig. 5) Robert Rauschenberg, 22 The Lily White, 1950
Collection Nancy Ganz Wright, La Canada
(NO FIG #) Lot 18 (detail)
Encaustic on canvas
Signed, titled and dated 'WHITE NUMBERS 1959 J. Johns' on the reverse
Columbia, South Carolina, Museum of Art, Jasper Johns 1955-1960, Dec. 1960
Los Angeles, Everett Ellin Gallery, Jasper Johns Retrospective, Nov.-Dec. 1962, no. 8 (illustrated)
Washington D.C., The Gallery of Modern Art, The Popular Image Exhibition, April-June 1963, no. 17
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, American Pop Art, April-June 1974, p. 56, no. 49 (illustrated)
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, 60'80 Attitudes/Concepts/Images, June-July 1982, p. 138 (illustrated)
Berlin, Martin-Gropius-Bau, and London, Royal Academy of Arts and Saatchi Gallery, American Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture 1913-1993, May-Dec. 1993, no. 146 (illustrated)
53 x 40.1/8in. (135.3 x 102cm.)
M. Kozloff, Jasper Johns, New York, 1967, no. 28 (illustrated)
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Silvia Glassgall, New York
Everett Ellin Gallery, Los Angeles
W. P. Cohen and Ben Heller, New York
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the late owners on November 27, 1964 for $15,000