Robert Rauschenberg at his retrospective exhibition at the National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington, D.C., 1976.
GIANFRANCO GORGONI/WWW.GIANFRANCOGORGONI.IT/COURTESY ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION
Robert Rauschenberg kept only one major example of his earliest, most influential body of work, the Combine paintings he made between 1954 and 1961. Short Circuit (1955) is similar to other works from the period; it incorporates sculptural elements with both painting and drawing and combines abstraction with images and objects plucked from the young artist’s world. But it was not included in his breakout exhibition, in 1958 at Leo Castelli Gallery. And though it was published in a couple of catalogues, Rauschenberg didn’t loan it to his 1976 or his 1998 retrospective, and he declined its inclusion in curator Paul Schimmel’s exhaustive Combines exhibition of 2005. Its appearance at Gagosian Gallery in 2010, two years after the artist’s death, was the first time the work had been seen in public in over 40 years. (It was wisely acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago.) Despite its low public profile, this Combine has had an extraordinary history and is a pivotal work of postwar American art. But Short Circuit’s significance is based not solely on what is included in it, but also on what is missing.
Short Circuit is made of classic Combine ingredients: thick brushstrokes, a lace curtain, a scrap of polka-dotted fabric, postcard images of a Renaissance painting and Abraham Lincoln, a word scramble, a program from an early John Cage concert, and a Judy Garland autograph, all affixed with paint to a chassis made of scrap wood and cupboard doors. Behind those doors Rauschenberg hid two smaller paintings, by two then-unknown artists: one was a landscape by his ex-wife, Susan Weil, and the other was a U.S. flag by his then-partner Jasper Johns.
Johns made over 40 paintings of the American flag beginning in the mid-’50s, none of which was shown publicly until his first solo exhibition, also at Castelli, in 1958. Do the math. Short Circuit was created for an exhibition in early 1955, which makes the flag painting in it not just the first flag painting Johns showed, but likely the first flag painting he made. The flag embedded in this Combine is one of the most important paintings in contemporary art history, and also one of the most valuable. It upends the commonly understood story of how Johns and Rauschenberg worked together and influenced each other, and of how Johns conceived his most significant work.
Or it would, if it were still there. Johns’s flag was stolen out of Short Circuit in 1965 and has never been recovered. Rauschenberg eventually replaced it with another painting, titled Johns Flag, a copy by his close friend and collaborator Elaine Sturtevant. This is the flag seen first at Gagosian, and then in Chicago, that made me wonder what happened to the works—both the Combine and the original flag within. Conflicting accounts of the disappearance of the Johns flag scattered in the footnotes of art-history texts and exhibition catalogues over the years do not help. People (or dealers, curators, and critics, anyway) don’t know what happened to a major work by two major artists of the day, and they seem not to care, content to pass along inaccuracies or offhand dismissals. Where is the original flag that would rewrite art history or bring an easy $100 million at auction (or both), and why isn’t there an all-out, Gardner Museum Vermeer–style hunt for it?
Short Circuit, 1955, displayed with closed doors.
COURTESY ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION/ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO
I wanted to address, if not answer, these apparently ignored questions, and so I set out to find the Short Circuit flag. Beginning in 2010, I searched archives and emailed and interviewed every person I could find who might have firsthand knowledge of the Combine, its creation, its history, and the circumstances of the flag’s disappearance. And what I found affected the way I view Johns and Rauschenberg’s work, their relationship, and their place in history.
Rauschenberg’s Combines are very much products of his life and surroundings at the time of their making. The early ones especially, and Short Circuit most definitely, are loaded with personal, autobiographical, and even private esoteric references, which critic Yve-Alain Bois derided as “semantic traps,” good for little more than “keeping art historians busy for generations to come.” And here we are.
First, a little background. Rauschenberg married Susan Weil in 1950, over the objections of her father, who did not think Rauschenberg was the marrying type. The couple lived in a studio apartment on New York City’s Upper West Side, where they made art, cyanotypes on blueprint paper, and a baby—Christopher, born in the summer of 1951, when Rauschenberg was at Black Mountain College. Rauschenberg spent much of 1952 in North Carolina, then, in the fall, took off to Italy with fellow Black Mountaineer Cy Twombly, while Weil stayed stateside to file for divorce. Twombly and Rauschenberg came back to New York in 1953. The painter Jack Tworkov had chosen one of Rauschenberg’s black paintings for inclusion in the New York Artists Annual (better known as the Stable Annual) at Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery. Rauschenberg and Twombly subsequently showed at Stable together, and Rauschenberg worked at the gallery as a maintenance man. Eventually, he met and took up with Jasper Johns, another aspiring artist.
In 1954 Johns helped Rauschenberg make a collaged, freestanding, screenlike prop for a Merce Cunningham performance. Called Minutiae, it is one of the first Combines, though it spent most of its early life strapped to the roof of John Cage’s Volkswagen tour bus and wasn’t shown in a gallery until 1976. Rauschenberg showed red paintings at Charles Egan Gallery, many of which contained fabric, images, and brushstrokes similar to those of Short Circuit. Tworkov once again chose a Rauschenberg painting for the second Stable Annual. Meanwhile, Johns destroyed most of the work he’d made up to and during 1954.
When the third Stable Annual rolled around, in April 1955, the gallery invited Rauschenberg to exhibit his work again. He wanted to invite other artists to be in the show, but the gallery wouldn’t allow this. And so Rauschenberg conceived of the work that came to be known as Short Circuit as a way to smuggle his curated picks into the Annual. He wrote letters to Weil and Black Mountain buddies Ray Johnson and Stan VanDerBeek, inviting them to make works for inclusion in his piece. In an email to me, Weil called Rauschenberg’s gesture sweet and generous. (Photocopies of Rauschenberg’s invitations to other artists to contribute to Short Circuit were shown alongside the work in a Finch College Museum group show in 1967, but these letters have not turned up since.) Short Circuit contained two small doors that, when opened, revealed the work of the two artists who agreed to participate: Johns and Weil. (A more pointed story was told by Castelli in a 1973 interview with Smithsonian archivist Paul Cummings: Rauschenberg proposed Johns and Weil for the show, but the vetting committee of artists from the previous Annual rejected them.)
Short Circuit, with open doors, featuring a Susan Weil painting and Elaine Sturtevant’s reproduction of a Jasper Johns flag.
COURTESY ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION/ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO
Rauschenberg was included on the Stable Gallery artist list; Johns and Weil were not. There is no works list, recorded account, or installation image showing Short Circuit in the show, but the story goes that the Combine doors, which have arrows and instructions to open them, were only ajar at the exhibition opening. Rudy Burckhardt took the first and only known photograph of Short Circuit in its original form. The open doors show Johns’s flag and a brushy scene painted by Weil.
In 1955 Johns was making Flag, the one we know, the one at MoMA, which the artist claimed to have dreamed about and then woken up and made. The art historian Leo Steinberg’s prediction that Rauschenberg would generate “dissertations galore, including of the fine print in the newspaper scraps that abound in Rauschenberg’s pictures,” applies to Johns as well. Flag is commonly dated 1954–55, but in her 1977 infrared imaging analysis titled “The Infra-Iconography of Jasper Johns,” art historian Joan Carpenter tells of a visitor to MoMA in the ’70s who noticed Flag contains a newspaper fragment clearly dating from 1956. The work was repaired after being damaged during a party in the studio, the artist explained. Similarly, I dated a fragment integral to the field of stars in the flag to a news report about the Eisenhower campaign from late May 1955, after the Stable Annual had closed. Whether or not Johns had begun Flag before he made the Short Circuit flag, he had not finished it by that time. The Short Circuit flag came first.
Rauschenberg made many Combines, including one he called Plymouth Rock, but which is officially untitled. Like Short Circuit it is full of autobiographical and familial references. There is a stuffed hen below a picture of Rauschenberg’s sister as a small-town beauty queen, a washed-out head shot of Johns, a photo of an infant Christopher, and a heartbreaking note, obviously added later, in Christopher’s kindergarten scrawl (“I hope that you still like me Bob cause I still love you. Please wright me back love LOVE Christopher.”) Rauschenberg and Johns frequently altered and added to works that sat in their Fulton Street studios for years before the spotlight fixed on them in 1958.
There is no mention of Short Circuit in any account of the momentous 1957 visit Leo Castelli and his wife Ileana Sonnabend made to Rauschenberg’s studio, where they first met Johns and offered him a show on the spot. (Rauschenberg got the next one on the schedule.) Short Circuit figured into no reviews of either artist’s debut exhibitions; if anything, their supporters officially ignored Rauschenberg and Johns’s collaboration and took care to differentiate the artist-couple and their work.
Cornell University included Short Circuit in a group show about assemblage that opened in March 1958 and was on view during Rauschenberg’s debut at Castelli and just after John’s own premiere, which made him into an overnight star. Alan Solomon, who organized the Cornell show, would go on to curate both precocious artists’ solo exhibitions at the Jewish Museum, in 1963 and 1964, respectively. Solomon never referred to Short Circuit again, and his shows put an early critical emphasis on the artists’ independence and differences from each other, in both practice and personality.
At the time of the Cornell show, Combines were still not called Combines; they were “assemblages” or “constructions.” Much later, Calvin Tomkins wrote in the New Yorker in 2005, Johns would remember coming up with the term Combine. Rauschenberg remembered otherwise. Short Circuit, too, was not yet called Short Circuit; the first mention of that title was at the Finch College show in 1967. Both Solomon’s Cornell exhibition checklist and a 1958 inventory in Castelli’s archive refer to the piece as “Construction with J.J. Flag.”
Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg at Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles, 1980.
TERRY VAN BRUNT/COURTESY ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION
In 1961 Rauschenberg and Johns broke up rather bitterly over irreconcilable professional, aesthetic, and romantic conflicts. They each owned significant amounts of each other’s works, but only one work was the subject of an agreement over its fate: Short Circuit. This agreement came to light in 1962, when a dispute arose over the sale of images of Short Circuit by a subscription slide service called Portable Gallery Press. Editor Albert Vanderburg wrote that Short Circuit was an example of a more established artist giving newcomers a “helping hand” with their careers. That prompted Rauschenberg to deny Portable Gallery permission to sell slides of the Combine. (They had taken pictures of the piece while documenting other artworks in Castelli’s Lower East Side warehouse.) Vanderburg complained that the decision was part of a “cover-up of political maneuvering.” That charge, according to a tale Vanderburg loves retelling, including in an email to me, prompted Castelli to call him a “bitch” on the phone. In response to Vanderburg, Johns wrote a letter, published in the December 1962 issue of the Portable Gallery Bulletin. It is a powerful declaration of an artist’s agency, and his only public statement about Short Circuit:
I’ve always supposed that artists were allowed to paint however-whatever they pleased and to do whatever they please with their work—or not to give, sell, lend, allow reproduction, rework, destroy, repair, or exhibit it… Rauschenberg’s decision was part of a solution of differences of opinion between him and me over commercial and aesthetic values relating to that work. The painting itself has been publicly exhibited at least twice and, I believe, slides of it have been used in connection with public lectures.
The solution to these differences of opinion was to not show, publish, or sell the work with Johns’s flag in it. In Vanderburg’s own telling on his website, Portable Gallery decided to offer the Short Circuit slide for free to purchasers of their 1963 Pop art slide package. As for Short Circuit itself, the piece stayed in Castelli’s warehouse, at 25 First Avenue in downtown Manhattan, until at least 1965. From this point there are two slightly different versions of the story, both of which come from Castelli. The first is the public one, which Castelli told Michael Crichton in an interview for the Whitney Museum’s 1977 Johns retrospective catalogue, and which echoed through the writings of New Yorker scribe Calvin Tomkins.
According to this version, and the Castelli Gallery’s paper trail, the Short Circuit flag was stolen sometime “before June 8, 1965,” which was a Tuesday. The date Castelli gave the insurance company was June 6, a Sunday. Line that up with Crichton’s footnote on the “curious historical incident,” in which “one day, [Castelli] examined the painting and discovered that the Johns flag had been stolen.” But it was only “years later,” Castelli told Crichton, that “a dealer—we do not need to say who”—brought a flag to the gallery for authentication, a flag which Castelli recognized immediately as the missing Combine flag. The dealer said he couldn’t leave the work with the gallery, and, Castelli said, “he was very insistent, so I said, ‘Well, all right.’ I never saw the painting again.”
But in June 1965 Castelli filed a report with the NYPD 9th Precinct, which covers the Lower East Side, stating the theft occurred on April 15, nearly two months earlier. Edward Meneeley, an artist, photographer, and the publisher of Portable Gallery, recalled to me a very tense spring and summer in 1965, when he was shooting works for Ileana Sonnabend in the same warehouse where Castelli stashed Short Circuit. Meneeley “and everyone else” who had access to the warehouse were asked several times, he said, if they knew, saw, or heard anything about the missing flag.
This sequence fits better with Castelli’s second version of the story, which is really the first. It comes from a transcript of a 14-hour oral-history interview for the Archives of American Art, conducted by Paul Cummings in 1973. Though it was digitized in 2011 and is now readily available online, the transcript used to be restricted, and reviewing it required Castelli’s permission until 1993. (Castelli died in 1999.) In this telling, a dealer sought to authenticate “a very pretty flag of Jasper Johns’s”:
So he came with the flag and there it was, the flag that was inside the painting! I sent somebody down to the warehouse, and I told them to open that case and see if the painting of the flag was there, and it wasn’t there. So I said, “This is a stolen flag, so please leave it here.” He said, “No, it’s been given to me by somebody who would suffer direly if I didn’t give it back to her… please let me take care of it. I’ll get it to you.” I said, “Alright, if you promise that you’ll take care of it and get it back and straighten it out with her.” I never got it right back. He made a terrible, hysterical scene and said, “I must have the flag back.” . . . and the flag disappeared for good.
It would seem that when they learned of the theft, Castelli and company scrambled to figure out who was involved. When they couldn’t get the flag back by June, a police report and an insurance claim (according to Castelli’s notebook it was for “JJ,” not “RR”) were filed. In the copy of the report he left behind, the insurance agent, named Mellors, noted the flag’s dimensions (13¼ by 17¼ inches) and upped the initial value from $5,000 to $12,000. Mellors said that, in addition to the Johns, a small 1964 Roy Lichtenstein sculpture edition was also missing. The following week the gallery sent a cursory note to the Art Dealers Association of America that read, “Enclosed please find a photograph of the Rauschenberg work from which the Jasper Johns flag was stolen,” but with no titles, dates, details, or dimensions. According to the Art Loss Register (ALR), which was the successor to the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR), whose Stolen Art Alert list was the successor to the ADAA’s registry, no report of a missing Rauschenberg or Johns comes close to matching the Short Circuit flag.
It is here that the narratives of Short Circuit and its flag inevitably diverge. There is no contemporary record of Rauschenberg or Johns’s response to the flag’s disappearance. In a 2011 lecture on Short Circuit, Art Institute curator (now director) James Rondeau said, “Bob actually called Jasper and said, ‘Jasper, the flag is missing. What do we do?’ And Jasper, according to the literature and my interviews, says two words: ‘Call Elaine’ ”—meaning Elaine Sturtevant, an appropriation artist who had been making direct copies of work by Andy Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Johns. Sturtevant and Rauschenberg were friends. They posed together in the buff for a re-creation of Duchamp’s Adam and Eve in 1967, the same year they also shared a bill, along with Rauschenberg’s new boyfriend, dancer Steve Paxton, on the School of Visual Art’s fall performance calendar.
To the many inquiries I’ve made to Johns over the years of my search for the Short Circuit flag, he responded once to say he had no involvement in the decision to replace his flag with Sturtevant’s, a decision that stems from 1967, the year Rauschenberg fielded a request from Finch College Museum curator Elayne Varian, who wanted to include Short Circuit in a traveling exhibition, “Art in Process: The Visual Development of a Collage.” In the thin catalogue for that show, Rauschenberg posed with Short Circuit, its door propped open, but the cupboard was still bare. “Because Jasper Johns’s flag for the collage was stolen,” Rauschenberg wrote in the catalogue, “Elaine Sturtevant is painting an original flag in the manner of Jasper Johns to replace it. This collage is a documentation of a particular event at a particular time and is still being affected. It is a double document.” A double document at least. The future tense of Rauschenberg’s statement sent me looking for reviews of the ten venues for Varian’s show. If Sturtevant’s flag got in there in time, no one saw it, because according to all reports, Short Circuit’s doors were nailed shut.
Diptych of Rauschenberg and his dog Laika in Rauschenberg’s Lafayette Street studio, New York, ca. 1967.
WILLIAM S. WILSON/COURTESY ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION
Charles Yoder, a Rauschenberg assistant, remembers seeing Sturtevant’s flag in Short Circuit in 1971. Castelli called it “ugly” in his 1973 oral-history interview. According to his notes in the Smithsonian Archives, curator Walter Hopps, who organized a Rauschenberg retrospective in 1976 at the National Collection of Fine Arts, held out hope that the original flag might be found in time for the show. When that didn’t happen, Rauschenberg wrote that he might paint a replacement himself, both “to rid myself of the bad memories surrounding the theft” and because he “need[ed] the therapy.” The only existing photo of Short Circuit with Johns’s flag is in the catalogue, but in the last draft of the exhibition checklist, Hopps dropped Short Circuit from the show. Other curators who visited Rauschenberg’s studio lamented the Combine’s condition or its unavailability. It was not until Paul Schimmel’s 2005 to 2007 traveling show of Rauschenberg’s Combines that a full color image of Short Circuit with Sturtevant’s Johns Flag was published. It turns out Sturtevant’s flag was installed higher than the original, in order to accommodate a stamped label strip below it that reads, “The original Jasper Johns Flag was stolen in 1965. It is replaced by an original Sturtevant 1967,” which clears that up.
And what of the original flag? In 2010 I called Ivan Karp, Castelli’s longtime consigliere, who told me that the dealer who had gone to Castelli in 1965 to authenticate the stolen flag was Robert Elkon, and that his client, so to speak, was Gertrude Stein (of Madison Avenue, not Rue du Fleurus). Elkon and Stein both ran secondary-market galleries; the former died in 1983, but the latter is still around and dealing. (Elkon and Stein had been embroiled in a lawsuit in 1993 over the 1967 sale of a Chagall gouache, which turned out to have been stolen from the Guggenheim in 1965. The museum, hoping to avoid publicity and suspecting an inside job, had never reported the painting’s disappearance. Stein, Elkon’s estate, and their buyer agreed to pay the museum in a confidential settlement.) Stein and I spoke many times over the years I spent looking into the flag, most often when I dialed from unrecognized numbers. Though I never pressed, I came to believe that she did indeed have some firsthand knowledge of the Short Circuit flag.
The last piece of evidence I found, Castelli’s previously restricted 1973 interview, was the most startling. This was not because Castelli offhandedly fingered Elkon and Stein in his story, or because of the matter-of-fact way with which he declared, “The flag disappeared for good.” I doubt he didn’t care; he must have known what happened to the flag, or known someone who did. What really caught me by surprise was Castelli’s candor in stating what seems obvious, but which was denied or refuted for so long.
CASTELLI: There were three people that were the gallery: myself, Rauschenberg, and Johns. As a matter of fact it was Rauschenberg hyphen Johns, because they seem to be sort of always mentioned in the same breath: Rauschenberg and Johns. As a matter of fact, later on Johns got (there were other reasons too) got so irked by this constant coupling that occurs that he—this is certainly one of the reasons why he broke with Rauschenberg.
CASTELLI: Because he just did not want to be constantly mentioned in the same breath as Rauschenberg. Well there were other reasons of course, they started diverging also on aesthetic grounds and so on. Rauschenberg did not approve of the direction that Johns was taking and Johns didn’t approve of what Rauschenberg was doing.
Rauschenberg-Johns. These two great artists had diverged, but before that, they were totally in sync, influencing each other and developing and making their work together. Short Circuit and its flag were the fulcrum of their relationship and their early practice. And it was gone.
After reading Castelli’s interview, I called Stein one more time, for the first time in almost a year, and asked her if Castelli and Elkon could have simply quietly sold the flag back to Johns, at which point Stein hung up on me. I guess we’ll never know.
Greg Allen is an artist, writer, and filmmaker, and has published his blog, greg.org: the making of, since 2001.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 80 under the title “American Beauty.”
For the Welsh Liberal politician, see Jasper Wilson Johns. For the English soccer player, see Jasper Johns (footballer). For the non-fiction book by Michael Crichton, see Jasper Johns (book).
Three Flags, 1958, Whitney Museum of American Art
|Born||Jasper Johns, Jr.|
(1930-05-15) May 15, 1930 (age 87)
Augusta, Georgia, U.S.
|Known for||Painting, printmaking|
|Notable work||Flags,Numbers,Maps,Stenciled Words|
|Movement||Abstract expressionism, Neo-Dada, pop art|
|Awards||(1988) Awarded the Grand Prize for Painting at the Venice Biennial Artist of the year|
(1989) Awards By MIR
(1990) National Medal of Arts
(1993) Praemium Imperiale
(2011) Presidential Medal of Freedom
Jasper Johns (born May 15, 1930) is an American painter, sculptor and printmaker whose work is associated with abstract expressionism, Neo-Dada, and pop art. He well known for his depictions of the American flag and other US-related topics. Johns' works regularly receive millions of dollars at sale and auction, including a reported $110 million sale in 2010. At multiple times works by Johns have held the title of most paid for a work by a living artist.
Johns has received many honors throughout his career, including receipt of the National Medal of Arts in 1990, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. In 2018, The New York Times called him the United States' "foremost living artist."
Born in Augusta, Georgia, Jasper Johns spent his early life in Allendale, South Carolina, with his paternal grandparents after his parents' marriage failed. He then spent a year living with his mother in Columbia, South Carolina, and thereafter he spent several years living with his aunt Gladys in Lake Murray, South Carolina, twenty-two miles from Columbia. He completed Edmunds High School (now Sumter High School) class of 1947 in Sumter, South Carolina, where he once again lived with his mother. Recounting this period in his life, he once said, "In the place where I was a child, there were no artists and there was no art, so I really didn't know what that meant. I think I thought it meant that I would be in a situation different than the one that I was in."
Johns studied a total of three semesters at the University of South Carolina, from 1947 to 1948. He then moved to New York City and studied briefly at the Parsons School of Design in 1949. In 1952 and 1953 he was stationed in Sendai, Japan, during the Korean War.
In 1954, after returning to New York, Johns met Robert Rauschenberg and they became long-term lovers. For a time they lived in the same building as Rachel Rosenthal. In the same period he was strongly influenced by the gay couple Merce Cunningham (a choreographer) and John Cage (a composer). Working together they explored the contemporary art scene, and began developing their ideas on art.
In 1958, gallery owner Leo Castelli discovered Johns while visiting Rauschenberg's studio. Castelli gave him his first solo show. It was here that Alfred Barr, the founding director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, purchased four works from this show. In 1963, Johns and Cage founded Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, now known as Foundation for Contemporary Arts in New York City.
Johns currently lives in Sharon, Connecticut, and on the island of Saint Martin. Until 2012, he lived in a rustic 1930s farmhouse with a glass-walled studio in Stony Point, New York. He first began visiting Saint Martin in the late 1960s and bought the property there in 1972. The architect Philip Johnson is the principal designer of his Saint Martin home, a long, white, rectangular structure divided into three distinct sections.
Johns is best known for his painting Flag (1954–55), which he painted after having a dream of the American flag. His work is often described as Neo-Dadaist, as opposed to pop art, even though his subject matter often includes images and objects from popular culture. Still, many compilations on pop art include Jasper Johns as a pop artist because of his artistic use of classical iconography.
Early works were composed using simple schema such as flags, maps, targets, letters and numbers. Johns' treatment of the surface is often lush and painterly; he is famous for incorporating such media as encaustic and plaster relief in his paintings. Johns played with and presented opposites, contradictions, paradoxes, and ironies, much like Marcel Duchamp (who was associated with the Dada movement). Johns also produces intaglio prints, sculptures and lithographs with similar motifs.
Johns' breakthrough move, which was to inform much later work by others, was to appropriate popular iconography for painting, thus allowing a set of familiar associations to answer the need for subject. Though the abstract expressionists disdained subject matter, it could be argued that in the end, they had simply changed subjects. Johns neutralized the subject, so that something like a pure painted surface could declare itself. For twenty years after Johns painted Flag, the surface could suffice – for example, in Andy Warhol's silkscreens, or in Robert Irwin's illuminated ambient works.
The paintings of Abstract expressionist figures like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning are indexical in that they stand effectively as a signature on canvas. In contrast, Neo-Dadaists like Johns and Rauschenberg seemed preoccupied with a lessening of the reliance of their art on indexical qualities, seeking instead to create meaning solely through the use of conventional symbols. Some have interpreted this as a rejection of the hallowed individualism of the abstract expressionists. Their works also imply symbols existing outside of any referential context. Johns' Flag, for instance, is primarily a visual object, divorced from its symbolic connotations and reduced to something in-itself.
Johns makes his sculptures in wax first, working the surfaces in a complex pattern of textures, often layering collaged elements such as impressions of newsprint, or of a key, a cast of his friend Merce Cunningham’s foot, or one of his own hand. He then casts the waxes in bronze, and, finally, works over the surface again, applying the patina.Flashlight is one of his earliest pedestal-based sculptures. One sculpture, a double-sided relief titled Fragment of a Letter (2009), incorporates part of a letter from Vincent van Gogh to his friend, the artist Émile Bernard. Using blocks of type, Johns pressed the letters of van Gogh’s words into the wax. On the other side he spelled out the letter in the American Sign Language alphabet with stamps he made himself. Finally, he signed his name in the wax with his hands in sign language.Numbers (2007) is the largest single bronze Johns has made and depicts his now classic pattern of stenciled numerals repeated in a grid.
Since 1960 Johns has worked closely with Universal Limited Art Editions, Inc (ULAE) in a variety of printmaking techniques to investigate and develop existing compositions. Initially, lithography suited Johns and enabled him to create print versions of iconic depictions of flags, maps, and targets that filled his paintings. In 1971, Johns became the first artist at ULAE to use the handfed offset lithographic press, resulting in Decoy — an image realized in printmaking before it was made in drawing or painting. However, apart from the Lead Reliefs series of 1969, he has concentrated his efforts on lithography at Gemini G.E.L. In 1976, Johns partnered with writer Samuel Beckett to create Foirades/Fizzles; the book includes 33 etchings, which revisit an earlier work by Johns and five text fragments by Beckett. He has also worked with Atelier Crommelynck in Paris, in association with Petersburg Press of London and New York; and Simca Print Artists in New York. In 2000, Johns produced a limited-edition linocut for the Grenfell Press.
In 1973, Johns produced a print called Cup 2 Picasso, for XXe siècle, a French publication. For the May 2014 issue of Art in America, he created a black-and-white lithograph depicting many of his signature motifs, including numbers, a map of the United States and sign language.
For decades Johns worked with others to raise both funds and attention for Merce Cunningham’s choreography. He privately assisted Robert Rauschenberg in some of his 1950s designs for Cunningham. In spring 1963, Johns helped start the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, then intended to sponsor and raise funds in the performance field; the other founders were John Cage, Elaine de Kooning, the designer David Hayes, and the theater producer Lewis B. Lloyd. Johns later was the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s artistic adviser from 1967 to 1980. In 1968 Johns and Cunningham made a Duchamp-inspired theater piece, Walkaround Time, in which Johns’s décor replicates elements of Duchamp’s work The Large Glass (1915–23). Earlier, Johns also wrote neodada lyrics for The Druds, a short-lived avant-gardenoise music art band that featured prominent members of the New York proto-conceptual art and minimal art community.
In 1964, architect Philip Johnson, a friend, commissioned Johns to make a piece for what is now the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. After presiding over the theatre’s lobby for 35 years, Numbers (1964), an enormous 9-foot-by-7-foot grid of numerals, was supposed to be sold by the center for a reported $15 million. Art historians consider Numbers a historically important work in part because it is the largest of the artist's numbers motifs and the only one where each unit is on a separate stretcher, fashioned from a material called Sculpmetal, which was chosen by the artist for its durability. Responding to widespread criticism, the board of Lincoln Center had to drop its selling plans.
In 1998, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York bought Johns' White Flag. While the Museum would not disclose how much was paid, The New York Times reported that "experts estimate [the painting's] value at more than $20 million". The National Gallery of Art acquired about 1,700 of Johns' proofs in 2007. This made the gallery home to the largest number of Johns' works held by a single institution. The exhibition showed works from many points in Johns' career, including recent proofs of his prints. The Greenville County Museum of Art in Greenville, South Carolina, has several of his pieces in their permanent collection.
Johns was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1984. In 1990, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. On February 15, 2011 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, becoming the first painter or sculptor to receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom since Alexander Calder in 1977. In 1990 he was elected into the National Academy of Design as an Associate member and became a full Academician in 1994.
His text Statement (1959) has been published in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings.
Since the 1980s, Johns typically produces only four to five paintings a year; some years he produces none. His large-scale paintings are much favored by collectors and because of their rarity are extremely difficult to acquire. His works from the mid to late 1950s, typically viewed as his period of rebellion against abstract expressionism, remain his most sought after. Skate’s Art Market Research (Skate Press, Ltd.), a New York-based advisory firm servicing private and institutional investors in the art market, has ranked Jasper Johns as the 30th most valuable artist in the world. The firm’s index of the 1,000 most valuable works of art sold at auction—Skate’s Top 1000—contains 7 works by Johns.
In 1980 the Whitney Museum of American Art paid $1 million for Three Flags (1958), then the highest price ever paid for the work of a living artist. In 1988, Johns' False Start was sold at auction at Sotheby's to Samuel I. Newhouse, Jr. for $17.05 million, setting a record at the time as the highest price paid for a work by a living artist at auction, and the second highest price paid for an artwork at auction in the U.S. In 2006, private collectors Anne and Kenneth Griffin (founder of the Chicago-based hedge fundCitadel LLC) bought False Start (1959) from David Geffen for $80 million, making it the most expensive painting by a living artist. On November 11, 2014, a 1983 version of Flag was auctioned at Sotheby's in New York for $36 million, establishing a new auction record for Johns.
The most expensive work sold of Jasper Johns was Flag (1958), one of a series, was sold privately to hedge fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen in 2010 for a reported $110 million (then £73 million; €81.7 million). The seller was Jean-Christophe Castelli, son of Leo Castelli, Mr. Johns’s legendary dealer, who had died in 1999. While the price was not disclosed by the parties, art experts say Mr. Cohen paid about $110 million. "Flags" are Jasper Johns most famous works. The artist painted his first American flag in 1954–55, a work now at the MoMA.
In popular culture
- ^Solomon, Deborah (7 February 2018). "Jasper Johns Still Doesn't Want to Explain His Art". Retrieved 8 February 2018.
- ^Georgian Encyclopedia.org, New Georgia Encyclopedia 16 January 2009.
- ^ abcdeJasper Johns (born 1930); The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
- ^Horne, Peter; Lewis, Reina (1996). Outlooks: lesbian and gay sexualities and visual cultures. Routledge. p. 43. ISBN 978-0-415-12468-3.
- ^"Gay Artist Robert Rauschenberg Dead at 82". The Advocate. 14 May 2008.
- ^Zongker, Brett (1 November 2010). "Smithsonian explores impact of gays on art history". The Associated Press.
- ^Vaughan, David (27 July 2009). "Obituary: Merce Cunningham". The Observer.
- ^Lanchner, Carolyn; Johns, Jasper (2010). Jasper Johns. The Museum of Modern Art. p. 45. ISBN 978-0-87070-768-1
- ^Finkel, Jori. Artist Dossier: Jasper Johns. May 2009, Art+Auction.
- ^Betti-Sue Hertz. “Jasper Johns' Green Angel: The Making of A Print”Resource Library (San Diego Museum of Art) January 29, 2007.
- ^ abcVogel, Carol (February 3, 2008). "The Gray Areas of Jasper Johns". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-02-03.
- ^ abJasper Johns: Numbers, 0–9, and 5 Postcards, November 2, 2012 – January 5, 2013Matthew Marks Gallery, Los Angeles.
- ^Jasper Johns, Flashlight (1960/1988)Archived 2009-04-25 at the Wayback Machine. Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
- ^Jasper Johns: New Sculpture and Works on Paper, May 7 – July 1, 2011Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.
- ^Jasper Johns: Prints 1987 – 2001, April 24 – June 7, 2003Gagosian Gallery, London.
- ^Gemini G.E.L.: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1966–2005 | Jasper JohnsNational Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
- ^Johns: The Prints, February 2 – April 13, 2008[permanent dead link]Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
- ^"Sun on Six by Jasper Johns on artnet Auctions". Artnet.com. 2012-05-12. Retrieved 2013-12-05.
- ^Jasper Johns, Cup 2 Picasso (1973)Christie's London, September 16, 2009.
- ^Carol Vogel (April 17, 2014), Art as Magazine InsertNew York Times.
- ^Alistair Macaulay (January 7, 2013), Cunningham and Johns: Rare Glimpses Into a CollaborationNew York Times.
- ^ Patty Mucha on The Druds
- ^Julie Belcove (April 29, 2011), Meaning in the makingFinancial Times.
- ^Frank DiGiacomo (January 18, 1999), Art in the Gilded Age: Lincoln Center Czars Hang Up Jasper JohnsNew York Observer.
- ^Carol Vogel (January 26, 1999), Lincoln Center Drops Plan to Sell Its Jasper Johns PaintingNew York Times.
- ^Vogel, Carol (October 29, 1998). "Met Buys Its First Painting by Jasper Johns". New York Times. New York Times. Retrieved 2008-02-28.
- ^Brett Zongker (March 6, 2007). "National Gallery to Get Jasper Johns Prints". The Associated Press. Retrieved 2008-04-16.
- ^"Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter J"(PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved June 2, 2011.
- ^"National Medal of Arts". The National Endowment for the Arts. Retrieved October 20, 2013.
- ^Kristine Stiles & Peter Selz, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings (Second Edition, Revised and Expanded by Kristine Stiles) University of California Press 2012, p. 375
- ^"SkatePress.com". SkatePress.com. Retrieved 2013-12-05. [permanent dead link]
- ^RITA REIFPublished: November 11, 1988 (1988-11-11). "Jasper Johns Painting Is Sold for $17 Million – New York Times". Nytimes.com. Retrieved 2013-12-05.
- ^Jori Finkel (May 14, 2009), Jasper JohnsBLOUINARTINFO.
- ^"Rothko, Jasper Johns star at NYC art auction". businessweek.com. Archived from the original on 14 November 2014. Retrieved 14 November 2014.
- ^"Most expensive living artist at private sale". Guinness World Records. Retrieved 19 September 2017.
- ^Works of Art: Modern Art Metropolitan Museum of Art, online June 15, 2007
- ^"JasperJohns Target with Four Faces 1955" (with image), moma.org.. Retrieved 2015-09-13.
- ^Cotter, Holland (21 March 2014). "A Lens Catches; a Painter Converts". The New York Times.
- Further reading
- Bernstein, Roberta. Jasper Johns' Paintings and Sculptures, 1954–1974: "The Changing Focus of the Eye.". Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1985.
- Bernstein, Roberta; Tone, Lilian; Johns, Jasper and Varnedoe, Kirk. Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, The Museum of Modern Art, 2006.
- Castleman, Riva. Japser Johns: A Print Retrospetive. The Museum of Modern Art 1986.
- Crichton, Michael. Jasper Johns, Whitney/Abrams, 1977 (out of print).
- Hess, Barbara. Jasper Johns. The Business of the Eye. Taschen, Köln 2007.
- Johns, Jasper; Varnedoe, Kirk; Hollevoet, Christel; and Frank, Robert. Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, The Museum of Modern Art, 2002 (out of print).
- Kozloff, Max. Jasper Johns, Abrams, 1972. (out of print)
- Krauss, Rosalind E. and Knight, Christopher. "Split decisions: Jasper Johns in retrospect" Artforum, September 1996. Findarticles.com
- Kuspit, Donald (2010). "Jasper Johns: The Graying of Modernism". Psychodrama: Modern Art as Group Therapy. London: Ziggurat. pp. 417–425. ISBN 9780956103895.
- Orton, Fred. Figuring Jasper Johns, Reaktion Books, 1994.
- Pearlman, Debra. Where Is Jasper Johns? (Adventures in Art), Prestel Publishing, 2006.
- Rosenberg, Harold. "Jasper Johns: Things the Mind Already Knows". Vogue, 1964.
- Shapiro, David. Jasper Johns Drawings 1954–1984. Abrams 1984 (out of print).
- Steinberg, Leo. Jasper Johns. New York: George Wittenborn, 1963.
- Tomkins, Calvin. Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Artworld of our time. Doubleday. 1980.
- Weiss, Jeffrey. Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955–1965, Yale University Press, 2007.
- Yau, John. A Thing Among Things: The Art of Jasper Johns, D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2008.