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Art Index: Jasper Johns

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 is well known for his depictions of the American flag and other US-related topics. Johns' works regularly sell for millions of dollars at sales and auctions, 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. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 2007. In 2018, The New York Times called him the United States' "foremost living artist."

Jasper Johns, Three Flags, 1958

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Gilman Foundation, Inc., The Lauder Foundation, A. Alfred Taubman, Laura-Lee Whittier Woods, Howard Lipman, and Ed Downe in honor of the Museum's 50th Anniversary

© Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Johns is best known for his series of flags, maps, targets, letters, and numbers, a practice he began in 1954 after burning all his previous artwork. He started introducing text and numbers into his abstract paintings, such as Gray Numbers (1957) and False Start (1959), thus reinstating content. His use of defined or extant symbols differentiated his paintings from the gestural abstraction of the Abstract Expressionists, whose paintings were often understood as expressive of the individual personality or psychology of the artist. Because Johns imported well-known motifs into the fine arts, his paintings could be read as both representational (a flag, a target) and as abstract patterns (stripes, circles). Some art historians and museums characterize his choice of subjects as freeing him from decisions about composition. Johns has remarked: "What’s interesting to me is the fact that it isn’t designed, but taken. It’s not mine,” or, that these motifs are "things the mind already knows."

His encaustic painting Flag (1954–55), which he painted after having a dream of the American flag, marks the beginning of this new period. Flag allowed Johns to create a painting that was not completely abstract because it depicted a symbol (the American flag), yet drew attention to the graphic design of the symbol itself; was not personal because it was a national symbol, and yet, retained a sense of the handmade in the wax brushstrokes; and was not, itself a literal flag, yet was not simply a painting. The painting raises a set of complex questions with no clear answers through its combination of symbol and medium. Museum of Modern Art director Alfred H. Barr had to convince the museum trustees to buy the painting, as they were afraid its ambiguity might lead to boycott or attack by patriotic groups. Johns has made over forty variations of American flag paintings.

Johns often used encaustic as a painting method to create bumpy, textured surfaces unusual in painting. He also often used plaster reliefs in his paintings (such as Targets with Four Faces, 1955), which challenge typical conceptions of paintings as two-dimensional.


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.


Johns also produces intaglio prints, sculptures, and lithographs. 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.

Auction results

According to, $100 invested in a work by Jasper JOHNS in 2000 would be worth an average of $24 (-76%) in June 2020, with a price devolution of 83.7%, and 159 lots sold in 2020, and a turnover of 6.9 million dollars.

The best market for Johns remains the USA (98.2% of the collectors).

Chronological progressio


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