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Jasper Johns: Numbers


"I like to repeat an image in another medium to observe the play between the two: the image and the medium. In a sense, one does the same thing two ways and can observe differences and samenesses-the stress the image takes in different media."

-Jasper Johns, 1979


The Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) presents an important exhibition by one of America's foremost artists, Jasper Johns (born 1930), which is the first in-depth exploration of his use of Numbers as a subject.

Thirty-nine pieces between 1955 and 1996 lent by the artist, private collectors and museums in the United States and Europe will show how Johns treats a similar theme in subtle variations using a variety of media. Jasper Johns: Numbers will be on view through Jan. 11, 2004, then continues to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (February 1 ­ April 18, 2004).

Jasper Johns: Numbers was inspired by the Museum's 2001 acquisition of a set of charcoal drawings by Johns, Ten Numbers (1960). The CMA's Curator of Drawings Carter Foster and guest curator Roberta Bernstein, professor of art history at the State University of New York, Albany conceived the show as a focused, carefully chosen group of objects that elucidate the subtlety and complexity of Johns's treatment of this motif throughout his career.

CMA Director Katharine Lee Reid says, "We are proud to offer this in-depth and appealing exhibition of Jasper Johns's rich and complex Numbers."

John's art had its roots in earlier modern movements, including Cubism, Dada and Surrealism. At his first exhibition in 1958 at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, his images of flags, targets, alphabets, maps and numbers marked a return to subject matter at a time when abstract painting was still at the forefront of the New York art world. Johns's number and alphabet motifs, like his flags and targets, are commonly known "flat signs," and his choice of them as a primary subject for his work is one of the most famous chapters in postwar art history. His transformation of everyday symbols into art objects reflects his interest in the nature of language and perception and his technical finesse and virtuosity result in pieces of stunning beauty and visual presence.

In 1955, Jasper Johns did a series of encaustic and collage paintings of single numbers on a rectangular field, called Figures and the variations he developed on this motif over the next decade produced some of his greatest masterpieces. By 1960, Johns had developed four distinct motifs of the numbers subject: Figures, Numbers, 0­9 and 0 through 9. Figures show a single figure set into a rectangular field. In Numbers the artist developed a grid format of repeating rows of the ten digits zero to nine in a logically ordered but changing sequence, such as Small Numbers in Color (1959). For the 0­9 motif (also called Ten Numbers) the artist created an abbreviated grid of ten rectangular units in two rows of five, as in the Museum's 0­9 (1975). He developed the format more fully in drawings and prints where he depicted the figures on individual sheets that could be displayed either in two rows or a single row beginning with zero and ending with nine, such as the Color Numeral Series (1969). (right: Jasper Johns (American, born 1930), Color Numeral Series, (detail: 9), 1969, Edition AP 2, published by Gemini G.E.L. 10 Lithographs 38 x 31 c.m. (each sheet) Courtesy of Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles Plate 29-9)

Finally, in the variation 0 through 9, he superimposed all ten digits in a rectangular field one on top of the other, creating a layered assortment in which the unique form of each numeral is subsumed in a larger whole and fragments of their shapes emerge and disappear as they compete for the viewer's attention. 0 through 9 (1990) in charcoal, 0 through 9 (1961) in oil, and 0 through 9 (1961) in aluminum represent this motif in various media.

Johns's Numbers have had a profound impact on subsequent art because they address basic questions about perception and the nature of representation itself. Johns developed their form from commercial stencils and the use of such "found" shapes-ones that are pre-determined and widely recognizable-challenges the way the viewer looks at works of art by transforming the ordinary into richly worked visual objects. The purpose of this exhibition is to show how the artist treats a similar theme in subtle variations using a variety of media. The viewer will see how the artist develops his ideas in various painting media and expands these ideas with drawing and printmaking to create a cycle of works whose form and execution inform one another across the decades of the artist's career. John's virtuoso ability with material and his tenacity in exploring ranges of nuance within one medium makes for objects of seductive appeal.

Jasper Johns: Numbers is sponsored in part through the generosity of Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro.

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