Jasper Johns, American, born 1930
Encaustic on canvas
75 × 50 in. (190.5 × 127 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the Agnes Cullen Arnold Endowment Fund
Habits of Mind
- COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support
How to be a Gatekeep of Information:
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
- Explore the importance of object selection in composing a still life
- Compare and contrast three different approaches to still life creation
- Create original still life prints that tell stories about the self
Connecting to the Work of Art
Ventriloquist is representative of Jasper Johns’ increasingly contemplative and autobiographical works of the 1980s. This painting is filled with personal references that become a somber reverie on the artist’s physical and psychological environment. Inverted and hard to decipher, the images are uncanny surrogates for the intensely private and reserved artist. Johns becomes the “ventriloquist,” projecting his voice and speaking through the work of other artists and his own previous work.
This painting is an image of the wall above his bathtub, a setting that is indicated by a faucet and a laundry basket in the lower right-hand corner. On the wall of the scene, Johns has included objects that refer to the work of other artists, including a nail-and-shadow reference to Georges Braque’s trompe l’oeil (“fool the eye”) works, still-life compositions, and a Barnett Newman print (shown in reverse in the upper right). Also depicted are pieces of George Ohr pottery from Johns’ own collection. They float over a copy of Barry Moser’s illustration from the 1979 edition of Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick. But perhaps the most recognizable images in this highly personal scene are Johns’ famous American flags. The green, black, and yellow flags depicted here are the opposite colors—on a color wheel—of the traditional red, white, and blue flag. Johns frequently used opposite colors to create optical illusions within his works of art.
Although this painting is largely autobiographical, Johns touches on universal issues of illusion, perception, and deception. Illusion is present in every aspect of the painting, from the inverted Newman print to the well-known optical illusion found in the vase in the lower right corner, whose outline forms the silhouettes of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip. Johns cleverly plays with the viewer’s perception of the painting’s two-dimensional surface by layering the images, as seen, for example, in the taped image of the flags which partially cover up a piece of pottery. Johns’ fascination with illusion and perception is apparent in his frequent use of trompe l’oeil, the technique of copying an object with such exactitude that the object depicted may be mistaken as real. Johns paints in a naturalistic style, and, in this work, he uses his favorite medium: encaustic, wax that is heated, colored, and applied to the canvas using a brush.
In 1954, Johns began painting his series of canvases depicting the American flags, maps, targets, and stenciled lettering for which he is now famous. His repetitive depictions of everyday images, “things the mind already knows,” are both a reaction to and an attempt to explore the hidden connotations of mainstream, popular culture and imagery. Johns is considered a leading figure of the American Pop Art movement that emerged in the late 1950s. Besides painting, Johns has explored printmaking and sculpture, often working to keep viewers guessing at his materials and techniques. Throughout the span of his career, Johns has created a body of rich and complex work. His attention to popular imagery sets new standards for American art.
- Make an inventory of all the objects represented in this piece. How does Johns visually connect them?
- Notice the way that Johns denotes setting, such as the hinges along the center line and the faucet in the lower right corner. What do they suggest about this composition? Do you think that it represents the actual state of Johns’s restroom?
- The image of the whale is half-hidden in the composition. What techniques does Johns use to obscure it? What effect does this rendering have on the painting?
- Look closely at the objects included in this composition. How has Johns used optical illusion in this painting?
- Color is an important tool that painters can use to create an illusion of depth and movement. Which colors in this work seem to jump out at you? Which ones recede?
- Notice how Johns signs and dates this painting. Why do you think he chose to use a stencil rather than his own handwriting?
- Johns includes many references to, and direct copies of, other artists’ work in this piece. Why might he have done so? Is this a case of direct mimicry, or does placing these works together change their meaning?
- Consider the inclusion of the American flags in this work—two with inverted colors, and two in the original red, white, and blue, cut off on the left side of the canvas. Why do you think that Johns included such a familiar image in this work, even a reworked version?
- This is intended to be an image of the artist’s home, specifically his bathroom above the faucet. What do these objects, gathered together, say about this man and his home?
- Of all the rooms in his house, why do you think that Johns chose the restroom as setting for this piece? Do the defining aspects of the restroom—for example, the faucet—play an important role in the composition?
- What does a ventriloquist do? How does the artist use the title of this work to give the viewer a hint about its meaning?
- With all of these copies and re-inventions of already existing artworks, what might Johns be suggesting about the role of an artist? Is this an original artwork in your opinion, or just an amalgamation of already-made objects?
With your class, look at Jasper Johns’s Ventriloquist alongside Francisco de Goya’s Still Life with Golden Bream and Janet Fish’s Kara. Each is an example of careful object selection for a specific purpose.
Discuss these works together. Do students think that the objects in each tell a story? What mood does each selection of objects communicate, and how does the artist emphasize that message? Inform the class that still lifes are typically carefully planned out, with each object chosen by the artist for its symbolism. Do students consider all three of the artworks to be still lifes? Why or why not?
After discussing the three works, ask the students to create a print depicting objects that represent themselves. Allow the students to gather objects that they think tells a story about their life, and have them draw or photograph the objects. At the end of the project, have other students use questioning strategies to figure out what the others are trying to communicate in their still lifes.
Subject Matter Connection
Often we focus on the complex process in a printmaking project and students end up communicating very little in the content. Studying these three artworks first will help students choose a meaningful subject matter for a printmaking project. Additionally, students often view still-life as they would a photograph. They think it is just a painting of pretty objects and do not look for meaning in the artwork. This activity helps them understand how complex ideas can be communicated using inanimate objects in art.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.