The Flag painter: Jasper Johns turns 90 | Arts | DW | 14.05.2020
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The Flag painter: Jasper Johns turns 90

He is one of the most expensive artists in the world. It all started with a vision of a US flag, which led Jasper Johns to embody the American Dream — with the help of a legendary art dealer.

It was 1954. Jasper Johns was 24, living in New York, and had decided to go for a fresh start as an artist by destroying all of his previous works of art. Inspired by a vivid dream of the US flag, Johns went on to create Flag, the first painting in a series that would become icons of art history and turn him into a pioneer of pop art.

A difficult start

Jasper Johns was born on May 15, 1930 in Augusta, Georgia. His parents separated early, and as a child he was passed around in the family, living with his grandparents or an aunt between brief periods with his mother. "There was no stability at all," Johns later recalled. He always felt like a guest.

In the early 1950s, Johns fled to New York. "I wasn't adventurous. I had a kind of informal existence where I always wanted to be an artist, but I didn't have much education. I had no contact with people who were artists."

That all changed in New York. He met composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham and artist Robert Rauschenberg, the latter who became a close friend. Through Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns also became acquainted with the legendary gallery owner Leo Castelli, who facilitated his first solo exhibition and became his art dealer. At the time, Johns made ends meet by working in a bookstore or decorating window displays at Tiffany's.

Read more: Günther Uecker, creator of nail art, at 90

Bildergalerie US-amerikanischer Künstler Jasper Johns (picture-alliance/dpa/R. Scheidemann)

'Three Flags' from 1958

A painting or a flag?

To create Flag, Johns dissolved pigments in wax and painted them onto newsprint collages. According to the artist, his depictions of flags were never intended as a patriotic statement; it was purely practical, he said, as he didn't have to come up with his own motif.

Yet Flag confronts the viewer with the symbolism of the flag itself, and whether it is possible to detach the depiction from its meaning and simply see a painting of stars and stripes.

Primarily associated with abstract expressionism and pop art, Jasper Johns is also renowned for his humor. When fellow artist Willem de Kooning criticized his art dealer by saying: "That son-of-a-bitch, you could give him two beer cans and he could sell them," Johns reacted by creating a sculpture of two cans of beer. And of course, art dealer Leo Castelli sold the bronze. The sculpture now belongs to the Ludwig Museum in Cologne.

One of the most expensive living artists

Johns repeatedly played on the banality of everyday objects, giving them additional layers of meaning by turning them into artworks.

The winner of the Golden Lion at the 1988 Venice Biennale, Johns was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor by Barack Obama in 2011. He was honored with a guest appearance on The Simpsons, in which he was depicted as a kleptomaniac stuffing his pockets with light bulbs and flashlights at a party — a reference to his Light Bulb and Flashlight series of sculptures.

President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to artist Jasper Johns (imago images/UPI Photo)

President Barack Obama awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the artist

Today, Johns' paintings are worth millions on the art market. False Start (1959) was sold in 2006 for $80 million, making it at the time the most expensive painting by a living artist. One of his Flag paintings from 1958 was reportedly sold for $110 million in 2010, while the first Flag painting from 1954-55 is now at New York's Museum of Modern Art, cherished as a national treasure.

Jasper Johns himself, however, lives in seclusion on his estate in Connecticut. "I'm not going anywhere," Johns recently told The New York Times. But he continues to work every day — and still avoids talking about the meaning of his pictures. "Everyone has to interpret this for themselves. For me, the meaning lies in the picture itself."

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