"You might say that Johns works somewhere between abstraction and representation," says Jeffrey Weiss, curator of a new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Japser Johns: An Allegory of Painting. That can be seen in the 84 works Weiss has selected for the show. Some paintings and drawings feature recognizable images; others seem purely abstract; and some combine objects, symbols or words with splashes of paint.
All of the works were created during the first ten years of Johns' career. "The first decade is what we think of as the breakthrough period in Johns' work," Weiss says. "It's the period in which he produced a body of work that is profound in its impact on the subsequent history of art."
Now 76, Johns was 25 when he began rethinking the use of color and imagery in painting. For example, his painting of a target fills the canvas, turning the image into a target itself. Other target paintings and drawings, many of which are included in the exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, are almost abstract. Some include casts of body parts, which Weiss says " implicate the target as an object of violence."
Johns explores the meaning of color and language in other works. Instead of painting with specific colors, he stencils words that represent those colors on canvas. He explores mechanical methods of painting, using a ruler like a compass to create a circle or arc from a pivot point.
In 1962 he introduced the human figure into his work. After applying baby oil to his face and hands, he would press and rolls across a sheet of drafting paper tacked up to the wall. Afterwards, Johns rubbed charcoal across the paper, causing the image to emerge.
"When Johns brings the figure back, through pressing his hands and face onto the painting, he is actually introducing a new kind of figuration into art making," says Weiss. "It involves no kind of depiction or representation in the conventional sense. It is simply the action of the impress or imprint."
Johns combined the themes he explored individually, in large-scale works such as According to What and Diver. Diver features all the motifs curator Jeffrey Weiss highlights in the show: a partial target created by a pivoting ruler, the imprint of his hands, and the stenciling of color names. "He certainly tells us in his work that those motifs belong together by creating a picture like Diver," Weiss says.
But Johns will not talk about why he combined certain motifs or talk about his work at all. "He won't ever tell us. It is up to us, I think, to interpret the work," Weiss says. "This is something he feels very strongly about."
Half a century after he created the paintings and drawings on display at the National Gallery, Jasper Johns continues to work, and still incorporates many of the images from his earliest paintings and drawings. But he prefers to let his art speak for itself.
The exhibition Japser Johns: An Allegory of Painting continues at the National Gallery of Art in Washington through April 29 and will travel to the Kunstmuseum Basel in June.