5 Jasper Johns Artworks That Blur the Line Between Art and Everyday Life

With a career spanning almost 70 years, American painter, sculptor, and printmaker Jasper Johns has had a profound influence on the art world. In using common objects, written words, and innovative materials, he rejected conventional techniques in favor of his own visual language.

Through his art, Johns breaks down the boundaries between fine art and real-life and invites viewers to question the way we see and engage with the world. The 91-year-old Neo-Dada artist is thought to have helped influence movements such as Pop Art, Minimalism, and Conceptualism, and he continues to inspire contemporary artists today.

Read on to discover five Jasper Johns artworks and the stories behind them.

Here are five Jasper Johns artworks that sought to challenge audiences’ perceptions of the world.


Flag, 1954-55


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When Johns chose to represent the American flag, he sacrificed a lot of power in terms of color and composition. However, it’s his process and materials that allow the piece to stand out as an original work of art. Johns made this work by combining slabs of wood, shreds of newspaper, enamel house paint, and encaustic—a mixture of pigment and melted wax. This fast-drying medium froze paint drips and brushstrokes, leaving a highly textured surface where you can see the marks of the artist. Additionally, parts of the newspaper text remain visible through the wax and entice the viewer to have a closer look. Johns’ choice of medium captures a handmade quality, which is a contrast to the mass-produced quality of the American flag itself. He once said, “Early on I was very involved with the notion of the painting as an object and tended to attack that idea from different directions.”

Flag was an experiment that began Johns’ career-long investigation into “how we see and why we see the way we do.” While one person might associate the image of the American flag with national pride and freedom, others may only see imperialism and oppression. This artwork made Johns one of the first artists to provide polar meanings in a national symbol. When critics asked Johns if the work was a painted flag or a flag painting, he said it was both.


Target with Four Faces, 1955


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In Target with Four Faces, Johns again explores a familiar object that “the mind already knows.” A mix between a painting and sculpture, the artist rendered the textured target on a wooden box using encaustic (wax pigment) and collage. Mounted above the target are four plaster casts that depict the lower half of human faces. The faces were referenced from a single model over a period of four months and arranged in non-sequential order. By not showing the model’s eyes, the cropped faces appear to represent the anonymous masses. The symbol of the target perhaps hints at the targeting of society through political powers and media during the Cold War, which is when the artwork was made. The piece’s hinged lid allows the viewer to open and close the box and interact with the painting in a physical way.


False Start, 1959


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False Start playfully confuses the viewer with perceptual and linguistic cues. The expressive patches of red, yellow, blue, orange, and white have the words “red,” “orange,” “blue,” and “yellow” stenciled over them. However, each written word is mismatched with the visual color. For example, Johns writes the word “white” in red ink, stenciled over yellow brushstrokes. By focusing on abstracting colors and the words that represent them, Johns removes traditional associations.

He says of his work, “The flags and targets have colors positioned in a predetermined way. I wanted to find a way to apply color so that the color would be determined by some other method.”


According to What, 1964


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Johns created this huge 16-foot-long painting by joining several canvases together and adding various three-dimensional objects to the painted panels. The artist incorporated themes and techniques he used in his earlier works, such as expressive brushstrokes (he called “brushmarking,”) stenciled names of colors, and cast body parts. A chair, a cast of legs, and another smaller canvas with a hinge are secured to the panels. Johns also expanded on his techniques in the center of the canvas with the inclusion of screen-printed newspaper pages reporting on the Kremlin.

On the far-left side, the small canvas features a silhouette of Marcel Duchamp, John’s mentor. “Duchamp did a work which was a torn square,” Johns recalls. “I took a tracing of the profile, hung it by a string and cast its shadow, so it became distorted and no longer square.” he adds, “I have deliberately taken Duchamp's own work and slightly changed it, and thought to make a kind of play on whose work it is, whether mine or his.”

By displaying these patchworks of elements, Johns invites the viewer to experience According to What from different perspectives and interpret their own meaning.


Corpse and Mirror II, 1974


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In his work from 1972 to 1983, Johns used a new motif of crosshatched marks. He first saw the pattern on a passing car. He recalls, “I only saw it for a second, but knew immediately that I was going to use it. It had all the qualities that interest me—literalness, repetitiveness, an obsessive quality, order with dumbness, and the possibility of a complete lack of meaning.”

In his distinct, playful manner, Johns abstracts the motif from its typical use by repeating it across the canvas in primary colors to create a pulsating composition. While the gestural painting appears free and expressive, the title, Corpse and Mirror II, suggests a deeper meaning. Again, Johns creates tension between composition and subject, inviting the viewer to ponder the work’s true meaning.

Jasper Johns: Website

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Emma Taggart

Emma Taggart is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met. Originally from Northern Ireland, she is an artist now based in Berlin. After graduating with a BA in Fashion and Textile Design in 2013, Emma decided to combine her love of art with her passion for writing. Emma has contributed to various art and culture publications, with an aim to promote and share the work of inspiring modern creatives. While she writes every day, she’s also devoted to her own creative outlet—Emma hand-draws illustrations and is currently learning 2D animation.
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