Until 1954, Jasper Johns routinely destroyed his artworks, feeling them somehow inadequate. Then everything changed. He met artist Robert Rauschenberg, with whom he led a romantic relationship, and he was brought into the orbit of experimental composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham, both of whom enhanced Johns’s understanding of the role that everyday life could play in art. “There was a change in my spirit, in my thought and my work, as well as some doubt and terror,” Johns once recalled.
In the following decade, Johns went on to create the works that now define his oeuvre: his encaustic paintings of flags, targets, numbers, and maps. Termed Neo-Dada by critics during the ’50s because of the art’s basis in the conceptually slippery sculptures of Marcel Duchamp, these works marked a seismic shift in the New York art world of their day. They helped formalize a turn away from Abstract Expressionism and set the stage for the beginnings of Pop—and made Johns a bona fide star in the process.
Despite their fame, these works resisted easy interpretation and introduced the whatsit quality that has come to define Johns’s art. In the years afterward, Johns would continue to make paintings and prints that are likewise hard to parse. Rife with allusions to his personal life and art history, they have intrigued scholars because they appear so unforthcoming. As former Museum of Modern Art director Kirk Varnedoe once wrote, “The common image of this artist is that of a delphic, cerebral strategist who understands at all times exactly what he is doing and what his works mean (but usually chooses to keep it secret).”
Next week, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum in New York will open a two-part, 500-work retrospective spanning the full of the 91-year-old artist’s oeuvre. How do you decode a Johns painting? Below, a look at seven works and the layers of meaning hidden within them.