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Jasper Johns, Color Numerals, 1969

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Jasper Johns, Figure 9 (detail), 1969, lithograph, Gift of Gemini G.E.L. and the Artist, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, 1990. © Jasper Johns and Gemini G.E.L./VAGA, New York, NY

Since the mid-1950s, Jasper Johns (American, born 1930) has reworked key motifs—flags, targets, maps, the alphabet, and numbers—in a serial fashion, exploring the impact of changes in color, scale, sequence, and medium. Johns favors subjects that “the mind already knows” but overlooks due to constant exposure. Counteracting over-familiarity, each of the Color Numerals prints elevates a number, its form derived from a commercial stencil, to a striking, rainbow-hued portrait. This is wittily underscored by the Mona Lisa (printed in reverse) in Figure 7, a pun on the multiple definitions of “figure.”

The meaning of any series is to be found not just in its individual parts, but also in the spaces between them. Seen in sequence, each print functions as a point on a continuum, with color transitioning from primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) in Figure 0 to secondary colors (orange, green, and purple) in Figure 9. This succession is color-coded by Johns’s signatures, which match the topmost hue in each print. While Johns’s numerical sequence could in theory extend indefinitely, Color Numerals demarcates a terminal arithmetic progression, its finality reinforced by the heavy white outline of Figure 9.

“Take an object.  Do something to it.  Do something else to it.”—Johns,
c. 1963–1964

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Jasper Johns, Numerals, 0 through 9, 1970, lead relief, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Gemini G.E.L. and the Artist, 1981. © Jasper Johns and Gemini G.E.L./VAGA, New York, NY

The subject of Johns’s series, therefore, is the 10 base digits of the decimal system, derived centuries ago from humans’ 10 fingers. Johns’s series draws renewed attention to the fact that counting, something the mind already knows but overlooks, involves eye, mind, and body.

Johns’s basic instructions to himself, penned in a sketchbook—“Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it”— reveal the overarching serial logic of his creative approach. His exploration of numeric figures began in 1955 and grew in intensity until about 1970; it is the motif to which he has returned most often, exploring it in paintings, drawings, sculpture, and prints. Johns has taken advantage of the opportunity offered by printmaking to test multiple options, and pursue different avenues of exploration in his repetitive, measured transformation of the numerical subject. For example, the lithographic stones and plates that Johns used to print Color Numerals had been reworked from those used to produce Black Numerals, a series made the previous year at Gemini.

Banner image: Jasper Johns, Figure 7 (detail), 1969, lithograph, Gift of Gemini G.E.L. and the Artist, 1981. © Jasper Johns and Gemini G.E.L./VAGA, New York, NY