Jasper Johns is known as one of the most famous living artists in the world. Several of Johns’ work have held the title of most paid for a work by a living artist, and most notably a piece of his was sold for a reported $110 million in 2010. Yet, he is famous for not speaking on the nature or subject of his work.
“He doesn’t really like to talk about his work,” says Greenville County Museum of Art curator Chesnee C.S. Klein. “He wants you to come and see it and get your own feelings and relate to the work on your own terms instead of having a preordained idea going into it.” This is one of the many reasons his work has gained attention since he began creating it in the mid-’50s.
He is most well-known for his painting called “Flag” and his works with numbers, targets, and other elements of classic iconography.
“He takes one or several themes and then reworks them over and over,” Klein says. “He’ll revisit something and incorporate it into new bodies of work years later.”
This trait is one of the elements that make his work stand out the most because it showcases his high level of creativity and ability to incorporate themes and designs he has used before in continually new ways.
Johns was born in Augusta, Georgia, but was raised in South Carolina before moving away for college. “He lived in South Carolina until early college age, but just from growing up and spending his formative years in the South, part of him revisiting things over and over again, and that shows his appreciation for history and the past and so you can see in his work that he is revisiting his own history, which is part of his Southern upbringing,” Klein says.
GCMA boasts a wide collection of his work that spans from his earlier years to as late as 2017.
“The museum has a huge collection of works that span his entire career,” Klein says. “It’s not just prints, but it’s really amazing that this institution has been able to build not just a print collection, but that we have watercolor, drawings, monotypes, oils, and encaustics. We are covering not just the breadth of his career but the breadth of technical process.”
The museum has been building the collection for years and is proud to have pieces from as recent as 2016 and 2017. The exhibit is organized both chronologically and by theme so that viewers can see Johns’ continuing themes over the course of his career.
In his later career, Johns began to incorporate things that were more personal to him and use them throughout his pieces, such as a family portrait, his own shadow, his father’s watch, and images of pottery from his own collection of ceramics.
Though Johns is known for keeping his method and intentions to himself, he will occasionally give insight into his creative process.
“You get wonderful glimpses of stories from interviews where he reveals something personal from time to time,” Klein says. “You get these little glimpses of what he is seeing when he is painting and working on it, but you are not inundated with information so he encourages the viewer to come and have their own experiences.”
The GCMA exhibit is a chance to see some truly influential American art, and Johns’ unique pieces show more than just a career, but the evolution of an artist through media, subject matter, and stages of life.
If you go…
What: “Jasper Johns: More Than Meets the Eye”
When: Dec. 1-June 9, 2019. GCMA will be closed from Dec. 10-18 for repairs. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 1-5 p.m. Sunday
Where: Greenville County Museum of Art, 420 College St., Greenville