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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Jasper Johns

Artists have painted from their dreams, either directly or indirectly, for hundreds of years. The surrealists made it the primary cornerstone of their work. The fact that some of these dreams more nearly resembled nightmares only served to heighten their impact. Strangely enough, dreams played a part in the inspiration of one Pop artists too, a style of painting not usually associated with the wakeless state. That artist was Jasper Johns, and the painting was titled Three Flags. Painted in 1958 with encaustics on canvas, the painting is a mere 45"x30" (modest by Pop standards). Its most unique dimension however is not is length or width, but itthird dimension.  It is 5 inches thick.  We've all seen it no doubt, kind of a wedding cake version of the American flag--three flags, each about an inch an a half thick, each slightly smaller than the other, stacked one upon the other.

Three Flags, 1958, Jasper Johns

Johns claims that he had a dream one night that he was painting a flag. Not one to take such forms of inspiration lightly, he did so, in effect, "fulfilling his dream". The interaction of dreams and reality as applied to Pop art is unique, to say the least. It also adds a unique perspective to a painting that otherwise might border on the bland at best, and trite at worst.  It's hard to imagine an image more fraught with symbolism than the American flag, yet Johns steadfastly claims no symbolic meaning to his work. It is merely a Pop icon with a sort of conflicting perspective operating in such a way to at least briefly startled the viewer. The image physically juts forward while visually receding in that each overlapping image of the familiar "stars and stripes" becomes smaller.

Johns' was born in 1930 and was a good friend of Abstract/Pop  transitional painter, Robert Rauschenberg. Like Rauschenberg, his work was also influence by composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. However, Johns' work, unlike Rauschenberg, was pure pop, with no traceable pedigree lines back to Abstract Expressionism other than their close friendship. Johns' work also differs from  Rauschenberg's, in that it was just as likely to be sculptural as rectilinear. But always there was the removal of an everyday item--a coffee can with paint brushes protruding, a beer can, spectacles, a flashlight--into a sterile, gallery setting, framed or unframed, emphasizing not symbolism or function, but elemental design. Given the fact that much of his best Pop work was done in the late 1950s before Pop was chic, a strong case could be made for considering Jasper Johns, above all others, as the "Father of Pop Art."

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