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Jasper Johns - Father of Pop Art
Artists have painted from their dreams, either directly or indirectly, for hundreds of years. The surrealists made it the primary cornerstone of their work. The fact that some of these dreams more nearly seemed like nightmares only served to heighten their impact. Strangely enough, dreams played a part in the inspiration of one Pop artist too, a style of painting not usually associated with the wakeless state. That artist was Jasper Johns, and the painting was entitled Three Flags. Painted in 1958 with encaustics on canvas, the painting is a mere 45"x30" (modest by Pop standards). The work's most unique dimension however is not is length or width, but its third dimension. It is 5 inches thick. We've all seen it no doubt, kind of a wedding cake version of the American flag--three flags, each about an inch an a half thick, each slightly smaller than the other, stacked on upon the other.

Johns claims that he had a dream one night that he was painting a flag. Not one to take such forms of inspiration lightly, he did so, in effect, "fulfilling his dream". The interaction of dreams and reality as applied to Pop art is unique to say the least. It also adds a unique perspective to a painting that otherwise might border on the bland at best and trite the at worst. It's hard to imagine an image more fraught with symbolism than the American flag, yet Johns steadfastly claims no symbolic meaning to his work. It is merely a Pop icon with a sort of conflicting perspective operating in such a way to, at least briefly, startle the viewer. The image physically juts forward while visually receding in that each overlapping image of the familiar "Stars and Stripes" becomes smaller.

Johns was born in 1930 and was a good friend of Abstract/Pop transitional painter, Robert Rauschenberg. Like Rauschenberg, his work was also influenced by composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. However, Johns' work, unlike Rauschenberg, was pure pop, with no traceable pedigree lines back to Abstract Expressionism other than their close friendship. Johns' work also differs from Rauschenberg's, in that it was just as likely to be sculptural as rectilinear. But always there is the removal of an everyday item--a coffee can with paint brushes protruding, a beer can, spectacles, a flashlight--into a sterile, gallery setting, framed or unframed, emphasising not symbolism or function, but elemental design. Given the fact that much of his best Pop work was done in the late 1950s before Pop was chic, a strong case could be made for considering Jasper Johns, above all others, as the "Father of Pop Art".

Contributed by Lane, Jim
26 August 1998


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