Jasper Johns’ renowned lithograph False Start bridges the gap between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art and represents the development of his practice to encompass verbal as well as visual symbols. Overcoming the limitations of the symbols upon which Johns relied at the start of his career, False Start marks the transition into new territory, taking influences from Marcel Duchamp and John Cage and in turn influencing the interest in language and meaning that would concern Conceptual Art in the 1960’s. In this article, Singulart takes a closer look at False Start in the context of Jasper Johns’ career and its subsequent influence on future artistic movements.
Who is Jasper Johns?
Jasper Johns (born 1930) is an American painter, sculptor and print-maker associated with the postwar movements of Abstract Expressionism, Neo-Dada and Pop Art. Born in Georgia, he grew up in South Carolina, a place he described as barren of artists and artistic activity but where he nevertheless decided he wanted to become an artist at a young age. After 3 semesters at the University of South Carolina in 1947-48, he moved to New York to study at Parsons School of Design in 1949. This too was cut short as he was stationed in Sendai, Japan from 1952-1953 during the Korean War.
After his return to New York in 1954, he met the artist Robert Rauschenberg and the pair were soon in a long-term relationship. They were also close friends with other avant-garde artists such as Merce Cunningham and John Cage. Johns’ work caught the eye of the gallery owner Leo Castelli when he was visiting Rauschenberg, which led to his first solo show in 1958 where Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, bought four of his works. In 1963, Johns founded the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts in New York with John Cage. He continues to live and work in Sharon, Connecticut to this day.
False Start and Johns’ Inspirations & Techniques
Johns is renowned for his on-going stylistic and technical experimentation, and his breakthrough works came to define the period between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. In a reaction against the gestural abstraction that prevailed during the previous generation, Johns turned to finding imagery in “things the mind already knows”, which included flags, numbers, targets, maps. Inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades and other artistic experiments, Johns sought to create meaning through the use of familiar symbols, pairing concerns with the medium of painting with an interest in concrete imagery. It was in this way that Johns took symbols such as the American flag and removed them from its traditional context to transform them into something different, as is exemplified in one of his most famous paintings, Flag.
What is happening in False Start?
False Start, represents a transitional moment for Johns as he built upon his previous style and techniques. The motivation for this transition is described in his statement that there were: “certain limitations in my work and I had the need to overcome those… The flags and targets have colors positioned in a predetermined way. I wanted to find a way to apply color so that the color would be determined by some other method.”
False Start is a color lithograph, depicting bursts of red, blue, yellow, orange and grey onto a 445×350 mm piece of paper. On top of this are stenciled the names the colors, in different colors. For example, “yellow” is printed in blue, “white” in red and so on. The tension between the visual and the verbal, the color and its describing term, is a seemingly simple device that probes the viewer into a deeper engagement with the image on a semiotic level.
Rather than hand painting the words, Johns used a ready-made stencil, removing his hand from the image and recalling the influence of Marcel Duchamp. He was also influenced by John Cage’s experiments concerning chance and he here used a technique of relying on random movements rather than premeditated composition to guide his brushstrokes, resulting in the explosive, frenetic patches of color.
It is with this mismatching of the linguistic and the visual that Johns moves on from his previous nonverbal symbols and plays with traditional perceptions, transforming the words into objects. He succeeded in fulfilling his desire to overcome his previous limitations by encompassing visual and verbal symbols within the composition. This linguistic exploration had a significant influence on the development of Conceptual Art in the 1960’s and their investigation into words and their meanings. Subsequently Johns’ work succeeded in pushing the priorities of painting from the gestural concerns of the Abstract Expressionists into Pop Art and beyond, making himself one of the most important contemporary artists.