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
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
Printing through the Ages
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.
• Research the history of printmaking and printed books.
• Identify ways printmaking aided in the publication of historical documents.
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.
• Discuss why an artist would choose a medium that results in multiple images. What are the advantages and disadvantages?
• Research the history of printing, as well as the inventions of the printing press and of movable type. Learn about the use of prints as illustrations in early books.
• Identify uses of printmaking in creating and publishing historic documents (i.e.) issuing 1,000 copies of the Texas Declaration of Independence in handbill form)
• Discuss the impact of the technology of printing on learning and communication. What new technologies for communication and learning are available today? Compare and contrast these to printing.
Subject Matter Connection
In the discipline of Social Studies, students need to be able to think conceptually and differentiate between which patterns and ideas are common across societies. Students need to be able to recognize those ideas— whether economic, social, and political—that are not bound by time and place, and how a group’s perspective may affect the historical interpretation of those ideas and principles.
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.