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Mirror's Edge

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Up until 1954, Jasper Johns habitually destroyed his artworks, deeming them somehow insufficient. Then, a pivotal encounter reshaped his trajectory. He crossed paths with fellow artist Robert Rauschenberg, with whom he shared a romantic bond, and found himself drawn into the sphere of experimental composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Their influence broadened Johns' perception of how everyday life could intertwine with art. Reflecting on this transformative period, Johns recollected, “There was a change in my spirit, in my thought and my work, as well as some doubt and terror.”

Over the ensuing decade, Johns forged the pieces that would cement his artistic legacy: his encaustic renditions of flags, targets, numbers, and maps. Considered “Neo-Dada” by critics of the 1950s who recognized their conceptual kinship with Marcel Duchamp's enigmatic sculptures, these artworks brought a seismic change within the New York art milieu. Jasper Johns’ art heralded a departure from Abstract Expressionism and laid the groundwork for the emergence of Pop art, propelling Johns into the spotlight.


Flag, 1954-55

Flag, 1954-55. “One night I dreamed that I painted a large American flag, and the next morning I got up and I went out and bought the materials to begin it. And I did.”

In the 1950s, Abstract Expressionism reigned supreme in the New York art scene. Gallery-goers were inundated with exhibitions showcasing all-encompassing abstractions, each bearing the distinct hallmark of its creator—be it Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, Franz Kline's bold black forms, or Mark Rothko's vivid color fields. Amidst this landscape, Jasper Johns' "Flag" emerged as a disruptive force. Unlike the lofty, philosophical themes, "Flag" presented a stark departure by representing nothing but itself: a straightforward depiction of the American flag, complete with 48 stars (excluding Alaska and Hawaii, which were yet to attain statehood) and alternating red and white stripes.

While Abstract Expressionism celebrated originality and the myth of the artist's genius, "Flag" embodied a different ethos. Johns relinquished control over the subject matter by using a pre-existing image thus challenging conventional notions of authorship. Although the title suggests a literal representation of a flag, the piece is, in fact, an image thereof. Moreover, Johns' unconventional use of encaustic (a medium associated with pre-Renaissance art rather than contemporary practice) further underscored his departure from artistic norms. By embedding fragments of newspapers in the paint of the picture, Johns infused everyday ephemera and current events into "Flag," multiplying the picture’s layers of meaning.

The American flag, both then and now, remains a symbol fraught with significance. Some interpreted the seemingly ominous drips in "Flag" as a commentary on the tumultuous state of the U.S. during that era, hinting at unpatriotic sentiments. However, Johns himself largely refrained from explicitly politicizing the flag in his art, despite creating a print featuring the flag alongside the word "MORATORIUM" in support of the anti-Vietnam War movement in 1969. In discussing his work, Johns adopts a refreshingly straightforward approach, offering insights into his complex art that are disarmingly simple.

Target with Four Faces, 1955

In this artwork, a target is juxtaposed with a striking sculptural feature: four compartments situated at its pinnacle. Each compartment boasts a hinged door, capable of being opened or closed, housing an identical cast of the same model's visage, spanning/visible? (many “ings”) from just below the eyes downward. Notably, many of Johns's castings of bodily fragments are deliberately truncated, imparting an eerie sense of detachment. While Johns has rationalized this unconventional approach as a pragmatic necessity, citing the challenges of casting an entire figure, he has remained elusive about the deeper conceptual implications of these casts.

The art historian, Kenneth E. Silver writes that Target with Plaster Casts (1955), a related work that features, among other things, a cast of a penis, is “a first portrait of a homosexual man in the postwar period.”

Map, 1961

In the early stages of his artistic journey, Johns showed a penchant for incorporating into his works familiar motifs and images, such as targets and flags. These were what he often referred to as "things the mind already knows," thus easy to recognize. However, the seeming simplicity hasn't deterred art historians from speculating on their meaning. Varnedoe, the former director of MOMA, identified them as "nonabstract forms of abstraction”: abstract concepts from daily life transposed into the realm of art.

In the paining entitled “Map” Johns depicts the U.S., along with portions of Mexico and Canada; the pre-existing boundaries of states and countries loosely shape an abstraction formed by gestural strokes of maroon, blue, and yellow-orange. This painting encapsulates Johns’ work methods as described in his notebooks: "Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it."

Usuyuki, 1982

From the 1970s onward, Johns experimented with the integration of two enigmatic patterns, each of distinct origin. One pattern, featuring interlocking forms with subtle points, drew inspiration from flagstones on a building’s wall in Harlem, which Johns noticed while driving through the neighborhood. The other, known as his crosshatches, comprised diagonal slash marks reminiscent of sights glimpsed while driving along the Long Island Expressway.

In 1977, Johns initiated his most ambitious crosshatch series, titled "Usuyuki." The title pays homage to an 18th-century Kabuki play centered around a love story, which Johns admired for “the fleeting quality of beauty in the world." While the play features a princess named Usuyuki, it's noteworthy that the Japanese term translates as "light snow."

The painting challenges our perception, as viewers are compelled to decide whether to focus on the crosshatching or the abstraction beneath it. Adding to the complexity, Johns incorporates geometric forms atop the crosshatching. Much like how a landscape becomes partially obscured during a snowfall, the painting's shapes seem to oscillate between visibility and obscurity. Art historian Michio Hayashi, in the retrospective catalogue, draws on Johns' own words about a different crosshatched piece to contextualize this one: "I thought there would be something that couldn't be identified but would be sensed in a certain way."

Racing Thoughts, 1983

Photo Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics, Rockford, Illinois/©2021 Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Whitney Museum

“Racing Thoughts” is a semi-figurative painting that highlights John’s artistic evolution. At first glance, this collage-like artwork appears to be a medley of disparate objects: a jigsaw puzzle rendition of Johns' dealer, Leo Castelli; a slightly distorted reproduction of the Mona Lisa; a wall adorned with Johns' signature crosshatching; an abstract composition; two vases; a desk; a skull and bones…

Upon closer examination, however, the painting's cryptic visual language begins to reveal intricate wordplay and subtle references. In the lower right corner, just barely visible, lies the edge of a bathtub, complete with its faucet and handles. Could Johns be reclining in the tub, contemplating the array of people and things in his life? Perhaps he is sifting through the various strands of art history that influenced him. As historian Roberta Bernstein noted, “Johns’ dialogue with art history is part of his ongoing inquiry into how images carry meaning, and how meanings shift in changing contexts.”

Mirror’s Edge 1992, Mirror’s Edge 2, 1993

"Mirror's Edge 1" and "Mirror's Edge 2" demonstrate Johns’ continuous exploration into themes of perception, duality, and the complexities of visual language. These works are notable for their integration of abstract elements with realistic imagery, encapsulating Johns' signature style of layering and textural variety.

"Mirror's Edge 1" (1992) features a captivating composition with what appears to be a cosmic or celestial image at its center, surrounded by abstract forms and architectural fragments. The artwork combines various elements that seem to float freely, creating a dream-like, almost surreal experience. This painting could be interpreted as exploring the boundaries between different realms or dimensions.


"Mirror's Edge 2" (1993) continues this thematic exploration but presents a slightly more structured arrangement. The central celestial image remains, framed by what might be seen as windows or passages, hinting at transitions or thresholds. The use of cooler colors and visible script or schematic-like drawings adds an element of calculation or design, suggesting a mapping of cosmic or uncharted territories.


Both works are visually complex and intellectually engaging, asking the viewer to ponder the interplay between the known and the unknown, the visible and the obscured. Johns’ use of iconic imagery combined with abstract forms in these paintings invites a dialogue on the construction of meaning and the ways in which we perceive reality.

5 Postcards, 2011

As Johns navigated through the decades of the 1970s - 1990s, his artistic output delved into even deeper complexity. Layering obscure references and new visual elements, the painter has crafted a private mythology accessible only to those versed in its interpretation. For instance, the painting “5 Postcard” revisits a recurring motif of a Rubin vase, also seen in "Racing Thoughts." The Rubin vase resembles either a vessel or two faces, depending on the viewer's perspective.

In "5 Postcards," the leftmost panel presents a collection of elements that reappear and transform across the adjacent pictures: two figure outlines, two Rubin vases, a ladder with a pinned cloth, and a palette akin to color bars found in artwork photographs. As the panels progress, the initial composition is disrupted, with one vase seeming to replicate and then topple off a tabletop. By the final panel, colors fade, and a figure appears to recede into the background, suggesting themes of loss or transience.


Jasper Johns is a renowned American artist known for his contributions to the Pop Art movement and his iconic depictions of everyday objects and symbols. Born in 1930 in Augusta, Georgia, Johns emerged as a prominent figure in the art world during the 1950s and 1960s. His work often incorporates familiar motifs such as flags, targets, and numbers, rendered in a bold and abstract style. Johns' innovative approach to art challenged traditional notions of representation and meaning, influencing subsequent generations of artists. He continues to produce influential work, receiving numerous awards and accolades for his contributions to contemporary art.

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