Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns, Souvenir, 1964

Nicely-paired with Jay DeFeo, SFMoMA’s Jasper Johns show is also worth checking out. Especially if you’re a type/print nerd like I am. At least half of the show consists of lithographs. Some are in multiple colors, others in black-only. Most of them are numbers.

I’m such a sucker for this kind of thing.

I enjoy them graphically. I enjoy them as objects. I enjoy them for how they make me think about and see numerals.* I enjoy the tidbits of process information** about how he used a single stone for an entire series.

*Similar to Walker Evans’s interest in letterforms except that Johns creating the letterforms in addition to presenting them. A signpainter indeed.

**I wish there were more process information since I daresay no one really knows what a lithograph is anymore.

Jasper Johns, Figure 2, from Black Numeral Series, 1968Jasper Johns, Figure 7, from Color Numeral Series, 1969Jasper Johns, 4, from 0–9, 1960–63

It’s lovely to see multiple series of prints displayed so they play off each other.* Some of the series use the same stone for both the color and black-only images. It’s extremely interesting to see how the same stone produces such different results. It’s also fun to think of the black and white prints as being a hint at what the stones look like pre-ink. There are hints of process here but, like with DeFeo, it’s still all product.

*Versioning confirms that all the series are kept together rather than reassembled later from individual pieces.

I also couldn’t help but think about the commercial possibilities. So many different numeral prints. I’m surprised no one’s created a clock using them.

Jasper Johns, 0 through 9, 1960;

Johns’s numbers pieces include more than just lithographs though. His number sculptures and paintings hint at letterpress printing or show the handpainted nature of the images. These are also graphically strong and continue the interplay between the process and the product. Are the drawings studies for the sculptures or prints? Are they inspired by those? Does it matter? It’s all fun.

Looking at Johns’s work, I found myself just liking him as a designer. He’s so visually strong with how type and letterforms work with color and other elements. The way he continues to alternate between color and black and white versions of the same pieces is also impressive and reminds me of the experience of looking at color separations at a print shop* and thinking about printed pieces in various black and white channels where you can see compositional elements in ways that you don’t see when all the color is present.

*I spent a half-dozen years running pre-press as a day job and graphic design at night. I still think in color separations when I deal with processing my photography.

Jasper Johns, Flags, 1967–68;

Of course, you can’t write about a Jasper Johns show without mentioning flags. There were a few on display. I have nothing to add here* except two observations. The first is that I noticed that the Johns flags all have 48 stars despite many of them being created after Alaska and Hawai‘i achieved statehood. This interests me. Is the 6×8 layout just graphically better?** Was it more iconic at the time since 50 stars was a new thing and 48 was the World War 2 identity? Or did Johns just keep using the same flag despite the US flag changing while he was exploring the subject.

*Read more about the Jasper Johns Flags at MoMA.

**Entirely possible

The second is his negative flag. There was no information in the museum about it being a negative* and it was only once I started looking at it that I began to realize what it was doing. Too easy to glance and think “flag” if it’s a positive. Even if the flag versus painting question is interesting.  The negative flag makes you stop and look. And if you look too long all you see for the next 5 minutes is a red white and blue flag no matter where you look.


The negative flag ends up printing a positive flag in your brain. A nice trick. And one which makes this print-nut smile.

Also on view

Jasper Johns, Bridge, 1997

I liked the prints and print-related material best. But there are many other pieces on display. Johns’s sculptures of lightbulbs, bread, etc. are fun. As is his self portrait and the story behind the dancing spot of light.

His newer work is also interesting. It’s still graphically strong but, while it references and incorporates elements of his older work, is very much a different thing. I’m not sure I like them but it’s good to see how all the pieces fit together.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

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