Jasper Johns, American, born 1930
Image: 39 3/16 × 29 1/2 in. (99.6 × 74.9 cm) Sheet: 50 × 38 in. (127 × 96.5 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the Museum Collectors
Habits of Mind
- COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support
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.
• Describe the subject and mood of a work of art.
• Write a class story about a work of art.
• Write personal stories describing the meaning of their own works of art.
Connecting to the Work of Art
A coffee can filled with brushes, a subject Jasper Johns used often in his art, sits on a wooden ledge. Behind is a design of hatching, sets of parallel lines in chevron patterns. This is a common motif in Johns’s works of the 1970s. The red imprint of an arm at the base of the print adds a macabre touch. The initials E.M. refer to the Norwegian artist Edward Munch, who painted a self-portrait of his head and upper torso, an image Johns associates with himself. Thus Savarin can be seen as a symbolic self-portrait, an idea reinforced by Johns’s own handprint, which is included as part of the composition.
The coffee can filled with brushes is the focus of the composition. Johns contrasts the lines of the brush handles with the diagonal hatching pattern across the background of the print. He also explores the different textures in the image. Because the artist uses a neutral palette of grays, blacks, and whites, the red arm print at the bottom of the work stands out in sharp contrast.
A lithograph is a printmaking method based on the fact that grease repels water. The artist draws on a stone or metal plate with a greasy crayon or ink. The stone or plate is then dampened with water, which does not settle on the greasy drawing. Then, greasy printing ink is rolled over the surface. The ink adheres to the drawn image and is repelled by the water everywhere else. When the stone is run through a press with a sheet of paper, the inked image is transferred.
Born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1930, Jasper Johns was raised in South Carolina by his grandparents. Essentially a self-taught artist, he lived in New York where he worked as a commercial artist doing displays for store windows.
The first works that brought Johns to the attention of critics and curators were paintings of everyday objects, such as flags, targets, and numbers. Johns stated,
In my early work I tried to hide my personality, my psychological state, my emotions… I sort of stuck to my guns for a while, but eventually it seemed like a losing battle. Finally, one must drop the reserve. I think that some of the changes in my work relate to that.¹
When Johns began to make lithographs in 1960 he stated that he wanted to see how complicated he could make the medium. He has since experimented with a variety of techniques and has worked with a number of master printers. Having worked with artists, musicians, and, dancers, Johns acknowledges no hierarchy within his work; prints are just are important as paintings.
Alison de Lima Green, “Jasper Johns in the Museum Collection,” Bulletin (Houston: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Fall, 1986), p. 27.
What do you notice about this work? Look closely at the background, middle ground, and foreground.
Consider and describe the different lines in this lithograph. What effect does the juxtaposition of lines in different directions have on the composition of the work?
Compare the lines in the foreground with the background pattern. What effect do the diagonal lines in the background have compared to the straight lines in the foreground?
Describe the color palette. What do you notice?
The colors are tones of black and white, except for the bright red hand in the bottom part of the lithograph. In terms of composition, why do you think the artist Jasper Johns emphasized the hand through use of color?
How would this work be different if the hand were black or white? And if there was no hand in the image at all?
This is quite a large scale image (39 3/16 x 29 ½ in.) What is the effect of the large scale, considering that this is an image of a relatively small object?
What associations do we have with the color red? How does the color red give a feeling of intensity here? Does it remind you of anything else?
What do you think the artist is trying to communicate to the audience with the juxtaposition of the pot of paint with a blood-red hand? Discuss this image as a still life and as a portrait. Do these categories adequately fit the work?
Discuss how the inclusion of the red hand and the initials E.M. alters the way we view this image.
The red imprint of an arm at the base of the print adds a macabre touch. The initials E.M. refer to the Norwegian artist Edward Munch, who painted a self-portrait of his head and upper torso, an image Johns associates with himself. What effect does the inclusion of these initials have on you?
What do you think is the intention of including the logo and brand of the coffee tin? Does this tell you anything about the time period in which the work is made?
In many of his works, the artist celebrated popular culture (Pop Art) whilst at the same time criticizing it. Discuss how this duality is realized in this work. Are there bigger issues to explore here? For example, how does the artist use recognizable objects to depict abstract ideas?
The first works that brought Johns to the attention of critics and curators were paintings of everyday objects, such as flags, targets, and numbers. The artist said: “In my early work I tried to hide my personality, my psychological state, my emotions…”
When Johns began to make lithographs in 1960 he stated that he wanted to see how complicated he could make the medium. He has since experimented with a variety of techniques and has worked with a number of master printers. Having worked with artists, musicians, and, dancers, Johns acknowledges no hierarchy within his work; prints are just are important as paintings. Do you agree?
• As a class, write a group narrative about Savarin, its symbolism, and its artist using descriptive words, correct grammar, and paragraph form.
• Have students write narratives based on their own still-life prints, describing their lives and the significance of the objects they selected for their still lifes.
• Bind the students’ prints and narratives together in a book. (see Art Lesson: Measuring for Books)
Subject Matter Connection
In reading and writing, attention to detail is important. By observing Savarin and its familiar subject, students can put into practice the art of observation. These observation skills can be repeated and re-emphasized throughout the school year when students observe works of art, read, or prepare to write. Because the subjects of Savarin is familiar, students should be more comfortable about communicating their thoughts and verbalizing their ideas about this work, skills that carry over into both group and independent language arts practice activities and assessments.
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.