Jasper Johns, American, born 1930
Encaustic on canvas
75 × 50 in. (190.5 × 127 cm)
Habits of Mind
- SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
GRADE LEVEL6, 7, 8
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.
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.
- Jasper Johns cleverly plays with perception and illusion. Here, he layers objects on the painting´s surface. Pieces of pottery seem to float before the flat surface of a hinged, folding screen. The pottery comes from the artist’s large collection of works by George Ohr (1857-1918), a Mississippi ceramicist who referred to himself as the "greatest potter who ever lived." Notice how Johns signs and dates this painting. Why do you think he chose to use a stencil rather than his own handwriting?
- Look carefully to find the image of a whale that is partially hidden amid the lines of the screen. The artist had recently read the 1979 edition of Herman Melville´s Moby-Dick with illustrations by the noted artist Barry Moser. Johns references one of Moser´s prints with this detail. Describe what else you notice.
- In the 1950s, Johns used the American flag as the subject of some of his most important and famous paintings. Here, he presents a poster taped to the flat background depicting two green, black, and yellow American flags. These colors are the opposite of red, white, and blue, and they refer to a specific optical illusion. (If you stare intently at the flags here, then close your eyes, you should see a red, white, and blue flag.) What else did Johns incorporate to emphasize this illusion?
- The artist included a 1961 lithograph by Barnett Newman in the upper right corner of the painting. Johns owned this work and, for this painting, has meticulously copied Newman´s abstract composition—only he has reversed its order. Why do you think Johns include works by other artists in this painting? Was he trying to copy them? Explain the reasoning behind your answer.
- There is an image of the wall above Jasper Johns’ bathtub. List all of the objects in this painting. What do these objects say about the artist? What do you think the other rooms of his house look like?
- What types of objects would you include in an autobiographical painting?
- What does a ventriloquist do? How does the artist use the title of this work to give the viewer a hint about its meaning?
- Color is an important part of creating the illusion of depth and movement in paintings. Which colors in this work jump out? Which ones recede?
- The detail of a nail casting a shadow on the wall shows the artist’s fascination with illusion. This device, called trompe l´oeil (or trick the eye), is meant to fool the viewer into thinking it could be an actual nail. Many painters used trompe l´oeil elements, and Johns borrowed the image of a nail from the still-life compositions of French artist Georges Braque (1882-1963). Why do you think Johns would include the trompe l´oeil nail in his painting?
- A 1977 "Silver Jubilee" vase sits atop the wicker basket within the painting. This vase was produced to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II´s ascension to the throne of the United Kingdom. Look carefully at the blue and white edges of the vase. They depict the profiles of the queen and her husband, Prince Phillip, facing each other. The inclusion of this object is an example of Johns´ expression that "You can see more than one thing at a time." Does this quote apply to other elements in the painting?
Connecting to the Classroom
(Investigation completed before conversation starters)
“What you see is not always what you get.”
Complete a Descriptive Investigation, utilizing the 5E Learning Cycle Model lesson:
- Engage: As a whole class, discuss this figure of speech: “What you see is not always what you get”. Teacher says to class: “You are a scientist investigating three different phenomena. Your mission is to complete three investigations in a group. After the investigations, you will analyze and research the scientific basis for what occurred in each investigation.
- Explore: Divide class into three groups. Each group rotates among the following activity stations. At each station, complete part of Response Sheet referring to that station:
- Activity One: After Image Experience: Stare at the yellow square with dot in middle for 30 seconds. Move eyes to blank box. What color appears? Record observations on response sheet.
- Activity Two: Trompe L’oeil Experience: Read top of paper. Unfold paper. Observe picture. Is it real or not? Record observations on response sheet.
- Activity Three: Optical Illusion (positive/negative space) Experience: Observe the image. Differentiate between positive and negative space. What objects emerge? Record observations on response sheet.
- Explain: As a group, discuss each activity and use scientific reasoning to explain why the above responses occurred by using scientific terms, empirical evidence, and logical reasoning. Record conclusions.
- Extend/Elaborate: As a group, choose one phenomena and research the scientific explanation behind it. Use sources such as Wikipedia, library, textbook, etc.
- Evaluate: As a whole class, students observe Jasper Johns’ Ventriloquist. Apply scientific research above to areas of the painting that exemplify each phenomenon.
(Answers: activity one refers to flags, activity two refers to nail, and activity three refers to vase/profiles).
- Ask students to identify the individual parts of the painting (the micro) before discussing the painting itself (the macro).
- Students should identify that the painting has depth related to the placement of the various components within the painting.
- The whole of the painting can be broken down into various components, which can be further broken into individual items, and the relationships make up the whole of the painting.
Subject Matter Connection
To develop a rich knowledge of science and the natural world, students must become familiar with different modes of scientific inquiry, rules of evidence, ways of formulating questions, ways of proposing explanations, and the diverse ways scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on evidence derived from their work. This habit of mind is important in understanding the micro and macro implications of evaluating individual parts (micro) of a painting in order to develop generalizations (macro) about phenomena.
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.