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Born in Augusta, Georgia, Jasper Johns spent much of his childhood in South Carolina. He briefly attended the University of South Carolina but in 1949 moved to New York City, where he took classes at a commercial art school. Drafted into the Army, he was stationed in Japan. He had returned to New York by 1952. He initially supported himself by working in a bookstore and designing window displays with Robert Rauschenberg for prestigious Fifth Avenue stores such as Tiffany and Bonwit Teller.
Johns emerged as a notable artist in the 1950s in the wake of the intensely personal, gestural painting of the abstract expressionists. Early in his career he was credited with returning recognizable objects to the visual arts by presenting them in a cool, seemingly detached, and often enigmatic manner. Johns has almost always selected the raw material of his art from preexisting images, or what he has called "things the mind already knows." Early in his career, in the 1950s and 1960s, he chose widely familiar "things," such as numerals or shapes derived from commercial stencils, targets, American flags, and maps of the United States. His first solo show at the Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, in 1958 included paintings with these motifs and was an instant success. In the early 1980s Johns began using a number of images known more to his mind than the public's: personal possessions like ceramic pots, works of art, and pictures clipped from newspapers.
Johns' painting, sculpture, drawing, and printmaking are all closely related. He is interested in the play between an image and the medium, and frequently explores the same subjects using different techniques. Johns' methods of juxtaposing forms, his choice of materials, and his handling of color make his images function as signs that offer a range of possible meanings for each work.
Jasper Johns is widely celebrated as one of the most influential American artists of the postwar era. His work combines intellectual challenge with highly sensual handling of materials. Johns is also regarded as one of the greatest graphic artists of this century, and his lithographs, screenprints, and etchings have been exhibited widely.
[This is an excerpt from the interactive companion to the videodisc American Art from the National Gallery of Art.]