It was inevitable—the leap from Marcel Duchamp’s readymades (like the infamous urinal) to paintings of readymades. This was exactly what Jasper Johns did in the 1950s. But his interest was in iconographic objects, things that were symbols, that stood for something within a culture. And what icon in American culture could be more famous than the American flag? Probably none; but how about a target? In no other civilized western society is the target more ubiquitous and replete with associations because in no other civilized western society could you find as many guns per capita: To master or use a gun you need a target.
Johns made many paintings of both the American flag and the target. But in painting them, he meant for them to be divested of meaning, shorn of associations from the past. Their only significance lay in acquiring the label of art by the fact of their being called art by someone who just happened to be the creator/artist himself, using art techniques and materials of his choice. In the 1950s when Johns produced his most famous and most valuable works (according to prices they fetch in the art market), his paintings of these two objects were assembled by collaging newspapers on canvasses over which he applied encaustic and oils. His images of both icons were painted flat. No changes in tone or saturation—no light or dark areas, no pure colors or colors mixed with black—gave the illusion of depth. By eliminating the illusion of depth or perspective, an essential element in representational art, Johns’ wanted to prevent the viewer from thinking that his paintings were pictorial stand-ins, representations, for the objects themselves.
“Mr. Mutt………….took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—and created a new thought for that object.” (Cited in Stokstad, Marilyn, Art History, volume 2, New York: Harry N. Adams, Inc., 1999, p. 1024)
Of several artists of the mid-1900s who took up the cudgel thrown by Duchamp to discombobulate art and art practice of the established academies, it was Johns’ works of the 1950s which most faithfully exemplified the raison d’être for Duchamp’s 1917 urinal. Johns preserved the idea behind it. But he also advanced the future course of art by his choice of objects familiar to everyone. Johns inspired later artists to take common objects as subject matter for their artworks. By virtue of the choices he made, Johns has earned, from some art pundits, the label “proto-pop artist,” precursor to the likes of Andy Warhol, probably the best-known practitioner of pop art.
For all that Johns might have done to move the history of art along, what actually have his paintings contributed to the debate (or the concurrence) on what art is? Unlike Duchamp and his urinal, Johns’ works could not be regarded as a critical point in changing the thinking on what art is. At least, I don’t think Thierry de Duve, author of Kant after Duchamp, would have thought so.
Johns was only one of countless artists (including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper’s one-time lover) who came after Duchamp and interpreted the message of the urinal their way. They all helped push art to where it is now—the domain of everybody and not just that of a chosen few legitimized by one art institution or another. Art can now be about anything and not just nobles, the religious, the mythological, the sublime view of a still life or a landscape. Art can be about soup cans, pictures of celebrities, numbers, etc. Even about peeing in a can. Art can break the rules of accepted techniques. Might we go further and say: Art is about anything and about breaking the rules of accepted techniques? That is, in the long run, what every avant-garde art movement of the past has done, what every individual artist asserts as his right—to create his own unique art his way.
For a sampling of the art of Jasper Johns, see: Jasper Johns: ‘Seeing with the Mind’s Eye’ At SFMOMA Depicts Sixty Years Of Invention And Transformation
In Which I Muse Again: What is Art, Really? Part 1
What is Art, Really? Part 2. The Missing Urinal: The Politics of Artistic Success
Part 3. Art is: A Tube of Paint. No More. No Less.
The Art of Shame