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0 through 9 (1961): The Story of the Revered Piece by Jasper Johns

Jasper Johns’ 0 through 9 is part of a series of works in which he layers the numbers 0 to 9 on top of each other, adopting a familiar image, and transforming it into something else via the medium of paint. His aim, as with much of his other mature work, was to push the boundaries of painting. A crucial aspect of his career is also his insistence that viewers analyze what they are looking at and how they look at things in the wider world in general. In this article, Singulart takes a closer look at the life and works of Jasper Johns and the meaning behind 0 through 9.

Who is Jasper Johns?

Jasper Johns (born May 15 1930) is an American painter, sculptor and printmaker 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, 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 in 1952 during the Korean War and would remain out there for two years. 

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. It was here 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. 

Johns art
Jasper Johns

Johns’ work is often labelled as neo-dada and pop art due to his desire to expand the possibilities of painting beyond the canvas and into objecthood. This shift is seen through his use of everyday subject matter, from the American flag to targets and numbers. It was this combination of ambition and his avant-garde painting techniques that led to him being recognized as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. 

What is happening in 0 through 9?

Jasper Johns painted 0 through 9 in 1961 while he was living in New York. It is part of a series of twelve works by the artist in which he superimposed the numbers 0 to 9 over each other to create numerous compositions. This began as a drawing in 1960 and developed to span paintings and prints. His most famous composition in the series, is painted in oil on canvas, using expressive brushstrokes in red, blue and yellow to create and outline the layered numbers. Although elements of all the numbers are visible, they are hard to distinguish from the overall collective composition and are transformed into something entirely different on the canvas. 

jasper johns
Jasper Johns, pictured in his New York City studio in 1964.

In 0 through 9, Johns uses heavy, multidirectional brush strokes and impasto to blend the color with the shapes of the numbers. Certain areas of the piece are emphasized by an outline in charcoal. The viewer can see how Johns’ dynamic, cross-hatched brush strokes contribute a rhythmic pattern to the painting’s surface. At the base of the canvas, Johns signed “Zero through Nine, Johns ‘61”. 

0 through 9 is exemplary of Johns’ concern with symbols and expanding the possibilities of painting that characterizes his mature work. Similarly to his paintings of flags and targets, the numbers, when removed from their habitual context, are reduced to motifs and pure form. It was in this way that Johns managed to focus the viewer’s attention on the painting itself – the technique, textures, materials and other painterly elements – as opposed to the image represented. His chosen subject matter was concerned with images that are “seen and not looked at, not examined” and thus by focusing the viewer on the pictorial elements of the composition, he encouraged them to reconsider what they were actually looking at. In 0 through 9, it is the blending and superimposing of the numbers that works to disorientate the viewer as it forces them to distinguish the form of each number through the filter of another. 

Click here to view artworks that are inspired by Jasper Johns’ style