Johns’s career falls into three broad periods: early work characterized by great detachment, abstract work from the early 1960s and 1970s that often emphasizes patterns, and imagery from the 1980s that is more personal and based on early recollections.

Artist. Johns was born in Augusta, Georgia, on May 15, 1930, probably because its hospital was the closest one to Allendale, South Carolina, where his parents were living. His father, William Jasper Johns, was a farmer and former lawyer who divorced his mother, Jean Riley, by the time the artist was three years old. Johns spent his childhood with various family members in Allendale, Columbia, Batesburg, and Sumter, where he graduated from high school in 1947. He attended the University of South Carolina from September 1947 until December 1948, when he moved to New York. In May 1951 he was inducted into the United States Army and was stationed at Fort Jackson until he was sent to Japan during the Korean War. Upon his discharge he moved to Manhattan and resided there until the mid-1990s, with regular sojourns spent at Edisto Beach, South Carolina (1961–1966), Saint Martin, French West Indies (1969–), and Stony Point, Long Island (1974–1991).

In 1954 Johns destroyed all of his previous work and began two of his signature series: the flag and the target. Four years later his career had clearly been launched: the prestigious Leo Castelli Gallery began to handle his art, the Museum of Modern Art acquired several of his works, and he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale. Johns is a pivotal figure of twentieth-century American art, occupying a critical position that mediates Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism. Like the latter, he is interested in art materials; he is proficient in a variety of media, including drawing and lithography, oil and encaustic painting, and collage and assemblage. Using commonplace subjects—such as the American flag, numbers, or a beer can—he discharges a fundamental tenet of his art: “Take an object. / Do something to it. / Do something else to it.”

Johns’s career falls into three broad periods: early work characterized by great detachment, abstract work from the early 1960s and 1970s that often emphasizes patterns, and imagery from the 1980s that is more personal and based on early recollections. For example, he incorporated symbols relating to his step-grandmother in several paintings emblematic of his childhood, and in 1992 he employed a floor plan of his grandfather’s house in Allendale. Four years later the Museum of Modern Art organized Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, which attempted to identify his sources, present his biography and achievements, and assess his place in modern art. In the accompanying catalogue, curator Kirk Varnedoe acknowledged Johns’s influential role: “Johns’s presence can be felt at or near the origin point of virtually every generative idea of importance in avant-garde painting and sculpture in America for four decades.” See plate 34.

Crichton, Michael. Jasper Johns. New York: Abrams, 1977.

Johns, Jasper. Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbooks Notes, Interviews. Edited by Kirk Varnedoe. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1996.

Varnedoe, Kirk. Jasper Johns: A Retrospective. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1996.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Johns, Jasper
  • Author Martha R. Severens
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • URL http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/johns-jasper/
  • Access Date July 14, 2020
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • Original Published Date June 8, 2016
  • Date of Last Update July 1, 2019