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Jasper Johns: Numbers

February 1 - April 18, 2004


"I like to repeat an image in another medium to observe the play between the two: the image and the medium. In a sense, one does the same thing two ways and can observe differences and samenesses-the stress the image takes in different media."
--Jasper Johns, 1979


In the mid 1950s Jasper Johns, one of America's foremost artists, began painting flags, targets, alphabets, maps, and numbers at a time when abstract painting was still at the forefront of the New York art world. His choice of these symbols as a primary subject for his work is one of the most famous chapters in postwar art history. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) presents an important exhibition of works by Jasper Johns that explores his use of numbers. Jasper Johns: Numbers is the first in-depth exhibition concentrating on a single subject by the artist and includes more than thirty works on loan from public and private collections in the United States and Europe. The exhibition is on view February 1 through April 18, 2004. (right: Jasper Johns, b. 1930, Ten Numbers (detail), 1960­71, lithography, collage, and paint on ten sheets of paper, 8 7/16 x 6 5/8 inches (31.3 x 16.9 cm) (average sheet size) Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne/Centre de Création Industrielle, Gift of Tatyana Grosman © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photo © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, New York, photo by Philippe Migeat)

Jasper Johns: Numbers is augmented at LACMA by a selection of works by the artist in the museum's permanent collection. This installation presents lithographs and etchings from 1969 to 2001, including works from Johns's most important print series, The Seasons (1987).

Beginning in the mid-1950s, Jasper Johns formulated a pointedly non-introspective style that examined the limitations of representation -- he wanted to reveal the ways in which an art object contains and expresses meaning. By re-presenting wholly public, relatively prosaic symbols that are not usually the subject of high art-for instance, flags, numbers, letters, and targets -- Johns challenged the viewer to see something new, to question accepted conventions of representation, and to look with an inquisitive, rather than a complacent eye.

In 1955 Jasper Johns did a series of encaustic and collage paintings of single numbers on a rectangular field, called Figures, and the variations he developed on this motif over the next decade produced some of his greatest masterpieces. By 1960, Johns had developed four distinct motifs of the numbers subject: Figures, Numbers, 0­9 , and 0 through 9 . Figures show a single figure set into a rectangular field. In Numbers the artist developed a grid format of repeating rows of the ten digits, zero to nine, in a logically ordered but changing sequence, such as Small Numbers in Color (1959). For the 0­9 motif (also called Ten Numbers ) the artist created an abbreviated grid of ten rectangular units in two rows of five, as in 0­9 (1975). He developed the format more fully in drawings and prints in which he depicted the figures on individual sheets that could be displayed either in two rows or a single row, beginning with zero and ending with nine, such as the Color Numeral Series (1969).

Finally, in the variation 0 through 9, he superimposed all ten digits in a rectangular field one on top of the other, creating a layered assortment in which the unique form of each numeral is subsumed in a larger whole, and fragments of their shapes emerge and disappear as they compete for the viewer's attention. 0 through 9 (1960) in charcoal, 0 through 9 (1961) in oil, and 0 through 9 (1961) in aluminum represent this motif in various media.  

Johns's Numbers have had a profound impact on subsequent art because they address basic questions about perception and the nature of representation itself. Johns developed their form from commercial stencils, and the use of such "found" shapes -- ones that are predetermined and widely recognizable -- challenges the way the viewer looks at works of art by transforming the ordinary into richly worked visual objects. The exhibition depicts how the artist treats a similar theme in subtle variations using a variety of media. Jasper Johns: Numbers demonstrates how the artist develops his ideas in various painting media and expands these ideas with drawing and printmaking to create a cycle of works whose form and execution inform one another across the decades of the artist's career. Johns's transformation of everyday symbols into art objects reflects his interest in the nature of language and perception, and his technical finesse and virtuosity result in pieces of stunning beauty and visual presence.

Jasper Johns: Numbers was organized by The Cleveland Museum of Art. LACMA is the exhibition's final venue.


Related Lecture:

Thursday, February 26, 6:30 pm
Dorothy Collins Brown Auditorium, LACMA
Lecture by Roberta Bernstein, professor of art history at the State University of New York, Albany, and one of the foremost authorities on the work of Jasper Johns.


LACMA Coordinating Curator:

Jennifer Spears Brown, Wallis Annenberg Curatorial Fellow, Modern and Contemporary Art, LACMA


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