Jasper Johns ( American, 1930 )

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General Description

The art of Jasper Johns refuses easy summary, and Device offers no exception. Here Johns has fastened two short stretcher bars to his canvas using butterfly screws, normally parts of the frame, over which canvas is stretched to create the "body" of a painting. He then rotated these slats through wet oil paint, leaving two half-circles that show their path. Across the canvas Johns painted a riot of reds, yellows, blues, and oranges mixed with black, white, and gray, in a work that resembles more than embodies the famous all-over compositions of abstract expressionism. In the lower section, Johns painted the word "device" in plain block-capitals. These elements form a kind of rote painting machine that nonetheless bears all the traits of a traditional work of art, yet undercuts the well-established idea of a painting as an illusion.

Johns’ paintings of the mid- to late 1950s and early 1960s represent a major change in the direction of postwar American art: challenging the dominance of abstract expressionism and setting the intellectual and aesthetic framework for pop art. In his early paintings, sculpture, and graphic work, Johns combined the ideas of Marcel Duchamp, the French artist who reinvented everyday objects into "readymade" sculpture, with the gesture, scale, and ambition of the abstract expressionists, and the role of chance championed by the American composer John Cage. We are asked to assimilate various bits of information and then produce a synthesis - that is, a meaning. Does Device simply illustrate art's devices - elements such as, stretcher bar, brushstroke, color, and title, exposed for all to see? Does a painting have to include marks made by the artist's hand? Could other devices be used to make marks? Is a painting necessarily a flat surface, or could it be a cylinder that is flattened? Does a work of art depend on a title? This work represents a complex game of word and image that Johns has played with throughout his career, one that questions the veracity of sign, symbol, language, and ultimately, knowledge itself. Questions, not answers, are the very point of this inscrutable and uncompromising painting.

Johns' work in general can be read in terms of his investment in a set of conventional images such as numerals, targets, body parts, and cross-hatchings, which recur in both his paintings and works on paper. These visual motifs reflect Johns’ interest in deploying what he calls “things the mind already knows,” which grant him “room to work on other levels.” The resulting works are cerebral and allegorical, suggesting the multiple, sometimes contradictory, meanings embedded in images and words.

Adapted from

  • Charles Wylie, "Device," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Charles Venable (New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press, 1997), 275.

  • American Art Gallery text, 2009.

  • Gail Davitt, DMA unpublished material, 1986-1987.

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