The Dark Symbolism Of American Artist Jasper Johns


A man staring at an American flag
Flag (1955), one of Jasper John’s most famous works, is featured at the Broad along with over six decade of his work in an exhibit titled “Something Resembling Truth.” (Photo courtesy of Esther Westerveld)

The Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles debuted an expansive new exhibit on American artist Jasper Johns, a pioneer of abstract expressionism and pop art Feb. 10. The exhibit is called “Something Resembling Truth,” and it houses works from six decades of Johns’ life.

This exhibit is monumentally important in the art world, but also accessible to those who might wish to be introduced to the great pleasure of viewing art, or just want to see something that will move them.

Out of every exhibit I’ve seen, this one may have been the most emotionally stirring. This is remarkable given the tendency for abstract art to be more of an exercise in intellectualism than aesthetic beauty.

Some background on Johns is called for, given the potentially esoteric nature of his work. Though some periods of his life were marked by the emotional viscerality of abstract expressionism, Johns should probably be called a Neo-Dadaist. This just means that he was interested in interrogating the artistic process and for the most part rejecting conventional aesthetic standards.  

But more than this, Johns’s artistic oeuvre can be defined by one singular characteristic: an utter fascination with symbols. More specifically, the symbols we overlook in our everyday life:  numbers, letters, targets, national flags. Johns’s most famous work is simply titled “Flag” and is an exact representation of the American flag made from colored beeswax.  

The bare simplicity of his many paintings of the American flag cannot help but invite the idea that they are purely ironic. They sit there on the wall, saying nothing but begging you to laugh at them for the absurdity of their frankness.  

I think there is more to Johns’ work with the American flag than simple irony, though, and I believe this can be understood only retrospectively as one moves through the exhibit.  

After the flags one comes across Johns’ work with other symbols, namely the numeral system and the English alphabet. Like the flags, they sit unadorned and unassuming, only representing themselves.

“Colored Alphabet” is a grid of the 26 letters of the alphabet arranged in five rows, and “0 Through 9” is a lithograph of the titular numbers superimposed on one another, forming twirls of connecting lines through which one can nearly make out the individual numerals.  

One cannot begin to analyze the art without becoming intimate with these unremarkable symbols — and this is by Johns’ design. At first, his bare-bones approach to symbol representation comes off as trite or self-congratulatory, a bonafide case-in-point for why I find some artists so annoying.

But there is a true darkness, something far beyond mere existential pessimism, in Johns’ work that courses through the art’s veins and refuses to hide behind the letters and numbers.  

Scale defines this darkness. I moved next to similar works that were much larger: “Gray Numbers” is a huge canvas (probably 10’ x 6’) upon which a monochromatic grid of the numerals “0” to “9” stands plainly in varying shades of gray.

The piece is menacing for its size; I felt as if I were standing underneath some awesome religious relic. The darkness of color, too, transfigures the numerals and charges them with a restless symbolic energy.  

Johns flexes his Neo-Dadaist muscles by representing the most basic of human symbols and demanding that we parse their meaning. It is a challenging exercise, but as time passed, I found myself suddenly attuned to an unfamiliar region of my mind, to the way I must subconsciously perceive these symbols.

“Gray Numbers” became, to me, a cave painting by primitive humans, an early attempt to mark the world with visual codes in order that they (and perhaps we) might make sense of the vast human consciousness.

As I continued to look, this grid of numbers transformed from the familiar companion I first encountered in a kindergarten classroom many years ago into an awe-inspiring reminder of my smallness within the scale of the universe.

I could see the primitive painters, making their shapes, attaching meaning to their symbols, learning about the world. I could also see myself in their place, making my own symbols.

I realized that everything I do and have done in my life only amounts to one futile attempt to find meaning in my life. I’ve inscribed my numbers on my canvas, but after everything, the numbers only sit there, put there by me.  

A crushing, but surprisingly exciting conclusion to come to, as I walked through a museum on a sunny Saturday afternoon.   

I moved next to an equally evocative painting, this one titled “Map.” This is another large canvas upon which Johns paints a gory, impressionist map of the United States.

Grayness broods, shadows blend the states into one another, and the colors appear to bleed down the painting. Johns brutalizes American imagery in a way that struck me as similar to the way Francis Bacon demonized the human form in his artwork.  

As with “Gray Numbers,” Johns convinced me that terrifying bleakness exists behind an image that heretofore brought to me the comfort of familiarity and organization.  

I’m aware that to invoke the societal ills of the current time in order to justify the importance of some artwork is more than trite, but I’ll go ahead and do it anyway. In an age that is notably characterized by disillusion in values and meaning, Johns’ art is a lone vista spilling over in artistic value. See it before it leaves the Broad May 13.  

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