In the mid-1950s a group of young artists living in New York began exhibiting paintings and sculptures that contained everyday imagery and objects. By combining collage and sculpture on the painted surface, they revealed what could be done to forward the ideas pioneered by the Abstract Expressionism movement. One of these artists was Jasper Johns, who had an enormous impact on the subsequent development of Pop, Minimalism and Conceptual art in the United States and Europe.
Born into a farming community in Augusta, Georgia, Johns studied at the University of South Carolina before moving to New York to attend Parsons School of Design. He met the painter Robert Rauschenberg, the choreographer Merce Cunningham and the composer John Cage, becoming part of a group of radical experimenters keen to develop new ideas in art based on chance and sequences.
The pivotal moment in Johns’ career came in 1955, when the gallery dealer Leo Castelli exhibited his painting ‘Flag’. It was a collage of the Stars and Stripes made out of newspapers and pigment suspended in hot wax. It divided the critics both on aesthetic grounds — they were unable to label it a sculpture or a painting — and on political grounds. Some called it unpatriotic, believing the collaged newspaper symbolised the conflicting fictions upon which nations are built.
Johns continued to work using this technique, making paintings of targets, letters, numbers and maps. In 1960 he created a sculpture of two beer cans, part of a series of sculptures that sought to reconstitute the ordinary in order to highlight the power of the perceptual over the physical world — the beginnings of Pop Art.
Today Johns is widely regarded as one of the most important American artists of the 20th century. In 2011 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honour, from President Obama. He was the first studio artist to be given the honour since Alexander Calder in 1977.
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