At first and quite possibly the second and third glance, nothing extraordinary catches your eye. The all too familiar color, subject matter and title cause you to wonder what exactly is it that makes the painting so valuable. But in 2014, it sold for $36 million. At only 12 by 18 inches, the piece does not grab attention because of its size. But painter and print maker Jasper Johns offers up a slice of history in his art. Born in 1930, the 85 year old artist enjoys intertwining Abstract Expressionism with the beauty of concrete subjects. Admitting he wanted to be an artist at a young age, Johns told PBS, “I think I thought it meant that I would be in a situation different from the one that I was in.” Perhaps, that’s what makes Johns’ artwork so appealing, his ability to illustrate so many different situations in such a simplistic, minimalist way.
Besides the bright orange, yellow, red and blue color palette, the first thing one notices in a Jasper Johns painting is the familiarity of the subject. Whether flags, targets, numbers, letters or maps, everyday items are almost always portrayed. They are comfortable and mysterious at the same time. “Map,” an oil on canvas depiction of the United States of America, draws viewers in deeper into the Johns reimagined depths. The map is both old and new at the same time, mimicking the feeling of a renovated home, vaguely familiar yet “new.” State names, stenciled onto the painted canvas are like cosmetic upgrades resulting in a kind of new value for the piece.
Whether intentional or not, Johns’ paintings seem to flow together, intangible ideals bound together by tangible creations. Guided by the “Map,” viewers often come across “Target with Four Faces,” another famous painting by the legendary artist. Like “Map,” this painting blends commonplace items with unexpected elements of surprise. Viewers, comforted by the fact that the bull’s eye, the goal, is within reach, are left wondering about the role of the blind faces. Regardless of the reason for the eyeless faces, the painting is a tangible illustration of people aiming for a target, whether their goal be mental, spiritual, physical, emotional or simply for sport. “False Start,” a colorful arrangement of colliding colors and words, reminds viewers that life is comprised of both the expected as well as the unexpected.
“My experience of life is that it’s very fragmented; certain kinds of things happen, and in another place, a different kind of thing occurs. I would like my work to have some kind of vivid indication of those differences.” Johns’ statement with PBS is exactly what happens in “False Start.” In some parts of the art, colors clash with other colors. In other parts, the word “yellow” is painted in blue on top of a red patch of paint. The mind, left to play puzzling games, undergoes false starts, constantly renegotiating and re-imagining that which seems normal. In the end however, the viewer’s mind, like life, grows stronger as it recognizes new patterns within familiar color schemes and words. In fact, that seems to be Jasper Johns’ message as an artist: pop culture reappropriated for social and personal growth. That is, in Johns’ world, simple flags, are reimagined as badges of personal patriotism, shooting targets become mirrors of life goals and mismatched colors depict the evolution of individual people.
Born in Augusta, Georgia, Jasper Johns grew up extremely aware of difference whether it was race, class or gender. Those lessons have helped shape him into an amazing artist that uses and reimagines familiar things in unfamiliar ways. In fact, Johns readily admits that good artists must be willing to give up everything, especially the desire to be traditional. He has done that, leaving the University of South Carolina after studying for only a few months. Moving to New York, he embraced the different pace of life, craving even more the freedom of artistry. For him, his work is about “relations between seeing and knowing, seeing and saying and seeing and believing.” But these relations can only be accurately understood through new eyes, reimagining everyday items and everyday circumstances in new ways and that is worth far more than $36 million.