A pioneer of postwar art, Jasper Johns opened up vast swathes of territory for future artists by changing the way we look at and think about how pictures are made and are visually consumed. His early work was termed “Neo-Dada” by critics for its irreverence and eager incorporation of two- and three-dimensional elements. He is also often cited as a significant influence on Pop Art for his use of recognizable imagery such as the American flag, targets, and maps.
Johns was born in Georgia and spent his youth there, remarking once that there were no artists around from whom he could get some concrete sense of what art is, though he began making drawings as a child. Johns went to college for a few years during the late 1940s, but did not finish. He served in the army during the Korean War and, on returning to New York, met a small group of avant-garde artists involved with the famous Black Mountain College: John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, and others. Johns’s collaborations and sharing of artistic ideas were seminal, and the artists he met there also shared with him a kind of social and personal freedom he had not previously experienced.
Johns's work during this era, in which he sometimes juxtaposed sculptural elements with the flat planes of painting or painted directly on sculptures, were described by critic Leo Steinberg as radically new. They were seen as dealing with imagery as raw data, as pieces of information distributed across a surface as one would spread puzzle pieces on a table. They encouraged a different kind of sight from viewers, an effect that has persisted in art ever since. Johns’s well-known flag paintings, which he began making in the mid-1950s, use the brushy paint application common to Abstract Expressionist painters of that time, sometimes layered over collaged newspaper clippings, simultaneously affirming and negating the hand of the artist.
In the 1970s and ’80s his paintings, prints, and sculptures became increasingly decorative, but remained challenging. Subtle shifts in the patterning of crosshatched red, yellow, and blue stripes were found in deceptively simple paintings. Prints incorporated recognizable optical illusions. His sculptures have long challenged the division between flatness and relief as well as what is visual and what are mental leaps on the part of the viewer, who must fill certain perceptual or conceptual gaps.
Johns’s work has been the subject of enormous amounts of scholarship, critical praise, and has been shown widely since the early 1960s. He has had major museum retrospectives around the world, including shows at the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, Kunstmuseum Basel, and many others. He has participated in multiple international biennials, including those of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Venice Biennale, and his work is included in dozens of major public collections. He is the recipient of a Congressional Medal of Freedom, the 1988 Venice Biennale Grand Prize for Painting, and the National Medal of Arts.