Painters Every Photographer Should Know – Jasper Johns

The American painter and printmaker Jasper Johns was born in Augusta, Georgia in 1930 but quickly moved to South Carolina to live with his grandparents after the separation of his parents. Unlike some of the previous artists in the series, Johns did not have access to artistic training at an early age. According to Johns himself, “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 a situation different than the one I was in.” Despite his lack of formal training at an early age, Johns began drawing when he was three and, unlike the previous painters in this series, is still alive today, continuing to practice his artwork at his current home in rural Connecticut.

Johns works in both painting and printmaking. According to the wiki, he is known for, “treatment of the surface [that] 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.” Some popular iconographic elements that Johns incorporates into his subject matter include flags, maps, targets, letters, and numbers, indeed his work is defined by the use of these elements as a subject, including such familiar items so that the pure painted surface could become defined, rather than providing a “distraction” of a more traditional subject.

Johns studied briefly at the University of South Carolina before moving to New York to attend Parson’s School of Design in the 1950’s. While working in New York crafting window displays for Tiffany’s, Johns became a part of an artistic community which included composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and fellow painter Robert Rauschenberg. It was at Rauschenberg’s studio where an encounter with gallery owner Leo Castelli launched Johns’ career. Castelli was so impressed with Johns’ work that he offered him a show and, at that show the Museum of Modern Art purchased several of Johns’ pieces. Since that first show, his paintings have gone on to sell for more than any living artist in history, securing Johns’ rank as a successful painter.

Johns does not restrict his art to painting alone-his love of process drew him into printmaking and assemblage/collage as well. Johns viewed printmaking as a medium where he could experiment and the reproducibility of making prints drew him to become an innovator in the field. Johns is also an avid artistic collaborator, working with other artists such as Andy Warhol, Robert Morris, Bruce Naumann. His collaborations have spanned media and genre. In 1967, he illustrated the book In Memory of My Feelings by poet Frank O’Hara, and in the 70’s, Johns met writer Samuel Beckett, creating a set of prints for Beckett’s work Fizzles. Johns also appeared on an episode of the popular animated TV show The Simpsons, playing himself, attending an art exhibit featuring the work of Homer Simpson.

Technically speaking, Johns is instrumental to the modern-day practice of encaustic painting. The current “state of the art” setup for an encaustic painter involves using a griddle or hot palette to melt the wax, a torch or heat gun to fuse the wax, and a mixture of pigmented wax along with wax medium (a mixture of beeswax and damar resin) to bind the wax. This is directly attributable to Johns, as his early attempts at working with encaustic paint torched his studio and it was only by the process of his experimentation that the current method of working with encaustics was developed. In the modern reference book on encaustic painting, The Art of Encaustic Painting, there is a picture of Johns working in his studio at his Connecticut home-he paints with encaustic paint vertically, heating the encaustic medium in a small pot on a burner immediately next to his surface, which is hung like a traditional painting as he works. Though Johns’ work sells for an extraordinary amount of money and is very difficult to obtain by collectors, he is known for being an amiable person, willing to help a fellow artist with questions surrounding his technique.

What Photographers Can Learn From Him
Working with symbols and visual archetypes is a powerful takeaway for a photographer-one that can easily transcend medium and be used to generate visual interest in a photograph as well as a painting. Johns played with common popular iconographic elements, such as flags, maps, targets, letters, and numbers in such a way that they became graphical in nature and so that the surface of his work would become more defined-to, in essence, take over the composition from any kind of traditional subject matter. Photographers can use this type of technique as well, in fact, it’s often used by photographers who come to photography from fields such as graphic design, where the basis of the subject is more graphical in nature and less narrative or contemplative. Responding to the world around you as pure symbols, shapes, glyphs, colors and lines can create dramatic compositions and can easily be used by photographers and many modern photographers share this type of aesthetic. For examples of this, you might want to look at the work of modern day graphic designer, photographer, and “father of grunge” David Carson or browse some of Flickr groups that cater to graphic designers, industrial designers, and product designers, to get a feel for the type of photography they are doing.

Even photographers who do not traditionally work “graphically” can assume a graphical response to certain subjects. Speaking from personal experience, I have used such a “graphical approach” to photography in the past-it’s often helpful if you’re dealing with a subject matter that’s difficult or new to you as a photographer. For an example of this, my first foray into automotive photography involved attending a small car show near where I live. At first, I had a very difficult time photographing the cars-the backgrounds were impossible to isolate, there were too many people in my frames, the lighting was terrible, and I could not get clean compositional lines-almost certain “death” to any kind of quality images. Only after I viewed the scene graphically, to approach the cars as graphical elements, separating the lines, shapes, colors, and forms from the rest of the surrounding “mess,” was I then able to produce images to my liking.

Working graphically is really an internal method for an artist-there might not be an outward “tell” that this was the approach used by the photographer-but it’s a very powerful tool for any photographer to have. It’s almost always possible to deconstruct a scene into basic elements, such as simple shapes, lines, colors, glyphs, and the like and, with a little imagination, construct an image around these elements. Even though you might view this as more of a sort of “mental academic exercise” it’s something you might try out as a photographer to see if it fits with your compositional style.

With his strong graphical eye, his iconic subjects, his rich, lush surface treatment, and his novel approach, Jasper Johns has been an influential figure in the art world for many years. Today, the encaustic master with a fondness for flags earns his spot in the ranks of Painters Every Photographer Should Know. You can read more about Jasper Johns on his Wikipedia entry and look for more painters (and posts) in the series to come.

This is next in a series called “Painters Every Photographer Should Know.” The painting shown here is Jasper John’s “Flag” (1954-55) . Please note that the paintings and photographs in this series are not copyright the author of this website, may be subject to international copyright law, and are provided her for educational purposes only.


  1. mythopolis
    March 16, 2010 / 1:41 pm

    A nice overview of the artist. Interesting that he along with others of the pop movement took the least common denominators of mass culture into the world of the gallery and made the subliminal everyday consciously iconic. Pop art changed the way we look at ourselves and media in general. I've always been interested in those coin-dispensed bubble bum like machines at the entrance to Walmarts. The many kinds of trinkets there constitute a mini-exhibit of pop art iconography today.

  2. mythopolis
    March 16, 2010 / 1:42 pm

    PS 'gum' not 'bum'…a Freudian slip I suppose.

  3. Carol
    March 16, 2010 / 5:02 pm

    Oh, those coin-dispensed machines would make for an interesting art project, wouldn't they? I could easily see a photographic series of those. Such a great idea!

    You're right about pop art too. I think, in a lot of ways, that was the intent of it anyway. To change the way we see "ordinary," to change the way we view the media, to make us look at ourselves as "consumers" rather than people. It's a mindset as much as it is technically an "art form."

    Thanks again, Mythopolis, for that food for thought!

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