Jasper Johns - 20th C. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 14, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Description

    Please note that this lot is subject to a guarantee by a third party with a financial interest who will bid and may continue to bid on this lot.

  • Video

    Jasper Johns, 'Figure 6', Lot 36

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 14 October

  • Provenance

    Owen Lee, Edisto Beach (gifted by the artist in August 1973)
    Private Collection, Paris (acquired in October 1997)
    Christie’s, New York, May 17, 2007, lot 122
    Attanasio Family Collection (acquired at the above sale)
    Sotheby’s, New York, November 11, 2014, lot 57
    Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Columbia, McKissick Museum, University of South Carolina, Jasper Johns, April 30 - August 6, 1989

    This work has been requested for inclusion in the artist’s forthcoming retrospective Jasper Johns organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York to be held from October 2020 - February 2021.

  • Literature

    Roberta Bernstein, Jasper Johns Catalogue Raisonné of Painting and Sculpture, vol. 3, New York, 2016, no. P184, p. 16 (illustrated, p. 17)

  • Catalogue Essay

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

    A monochromatic, contemplative foil to the aesthetic impulsivity of Abstract Expressionism, Figure 6, 1964-1972 exemplifies Jasper Johns’s 65-year-long conceptual dismantling of the signs, semantics, and orthography of postmodern life. Executed in a familiar typeface from a packing-case stencil, the painting’s “6” is reminiscent of a number from a classroom exercise or house address and thus takes its place among Johns’s ubiquitous subjects which he characterized as “things the mind already knows,” such as flags, targets, and maps of the United States (Jasper Johns, quoted in Kirk Varnedoe, ed., Jasper Johns, Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, New York, 1996, p. 82). Coated and silkscreened with Sculp-metal, a gray lacquer with the viscosity of toothpaste that resembles metal when dry, Figure 6 features a lush, highly-worked surface that is unique to its medium. Johns first began the painting while working on Numbers, 1964, his only public commission, which he made at Philip Johnson’s request for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York where it is still on view today. After painting it using the same method and in roughly the same size as each of the panels of Numbers, Johns returned to Figure 6 and one other numbered piece at his Houston Street studio in 1972, framing, dating, and possibly reworking the surfaces before gifting the present work to his sister and keeping the other for himself.

    In his mission to depict familiar objects, numbers have become a key pictorial theme in Johns’s oeuvre; while his earliest surviving known work, Construction with a Toy Piano, 1954, Kunstmuseum Basel depicts a row of integers out of sequence, chains of digits can also be found in his more recent production. The artist’s first works featuring individual numbers, Figure 6’s direct predecessors, were four encaustic paintings from 1955, two of which reside in the Museum Ludwig, Cologne and Los Angeles County Museum of Art and one which remains in the artist’s collection. Depicting numbers in four unique arrays—sequentially, isolated, superimposed, or listed from 0-9—these subsequent pieces have been executed over seven decades in as diverse media as encaustic, acrylic, aluminum, lithograph, and, as in Figure 6, Sculp-metal. As numerals themselves don’t carry specific meaning—they are typically adjectives, not nouns—their uncanniness as a discrete object makes them a quintessential recurring subject for an artist who has spent his career relentlessly investigating the enigmatic intricacies of linguistics and conceptions. Figure 6 asks the viewer to consider: Are there six of something, or six of nothing, in which case the qualifier has metamorphosed into the qualified? Is this a “6,” or a depiction of a “6”? By illustrating the incongruity between the orthographic recognition of the number “6” and the observation of six objects, Figure 6 accentuates the same discrepancy between perception and language that René Magritte represents in his Interpretations of Dreams series, a work which Johns owns.

    Furthering Figure 6’s affinity with Dada and Surrealism is the burgeoning friendship between Johns and Marcel Duchamp that developed during the evolution of the former’s numeral motif in the late 1950s and 1960s. In 1958, Johns went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to view the institution’s extensive collection of works by Duchamp, to whom Johns’s work had consistently been linked by critics, and was immediately struck by the modernist’s manipulation of chance, objecthood, and language. This association rapidly intensified: in 1959, Duchamp visited Johns’s studio, and by the early 1960s, they had established a mentor-mentee relationship and Johns had begun collecting work by his predecessor. Johns had also acquired a copy of Duchamp’s Green Box, a collection of documents outlining his musings during the creation of the Dadaist’s chef-d’oeuvre, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, 1915-1923, Philadelphia Museum of Art. In fact, Johns’s notes from 1963-1964, just before the creation of Figure 6, are extremely redolent of Duchamp’s Green Box, with one entry reading “Take an object / Do something to it / Do something else to it” (Jasper Johns, quoted in Kirk Varnedoe, ed., Jasper Johns, Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, New York, 1996, p. 54). Though he began experimenting with numbers before visiting Philadelphia, Johns applied this exact Dadaist methodology to Figure 6, the culmination of a decade of revisiting the same motif with diverse media and techniques. By detaching the cardinal “6” from its usual reference point, Johns exploits the physical number’s thingliness and invites the observer to view it as an object instead of as a qualifying function, just as Duchamp did with his ready-mades.

    From maps to targets and letters to flags, Johns has produced gray articulations of nearly every salient graphic theme throughout his career; indeed, Johns used his favorite color so often that its pervasiveness and significance in his oeuvre was surveyed in the 2007-2008 exhibition, Jasper Johns: Gray, at the Art Institute of Chicago and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. To Johns, the monochromatic utilization of gray was firstly a device to negate the Abstract Expressionist fetishism with the expressive subjectivity of vibrant bursts of color and vigorous gesture. “I used gray encaustic to avoid the color situation. The encaustic paintings were done in gray because to me this suggested a different kind of literal quality that was unmoved or unmoveable by coloration and thus avoided all the emotional and dramatic quality of color,” Johns recalled. “[Gray] seemed to me to allow the literal qualities of the painting to predominate over any of the others” (Jasper Johns, quoted in Joseph E. Young, “Jasper Johns: An Appraisal”, Art International, vol. 13, no. 7, September 1969, p. 51).

    Though the artist first mentioned the word “gray” in his masterpiece False Start, 1959, in which he sought to divorce the perception of color from language, Johns soon began to employ the shade in countless works that did not explicitly claim Abstract Expressionism as their victim. As the artist hinted to Young, gray also allowed him to underscore his assertion of painting as object, and thus it became a tool to direct the viewer’s attention to the conceptual nature of his pictorial interrogations. As art historian and curator Alan R. Solomon illustrated, “For Johns gray alone has always offered so great a potential as to be almost inexhaustible by itself… This kind of close exploration of a subtle and restricted range in search of the most abundant and commodious discoveries, as we have seen so often, exactly suits Johns…” (Alan R. Solomon, Jaspers Johns, exh. cat., Jewish Museum, New York, 1964, p. 13). His partiality for gray—which led him to Sculp-metal—was due to its potential as a means of achieving a concentrated focus on the conceptual and non-“painterly” aspects of Figure 6.

    In Figure 6, Johns embarks on the terribly ironic task of creating a portrait of a number, encouraging the viewer to confront the rudimentary elements of language. As Johns’s digits have thus become symbols of postmodernism, other numbered works are held at the Broad Collection, Los Angeles; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; and Tate, London, while the individual numerals of Figure 2 and Figure 3, both from 1969, are housed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. By making an adjective a noun, or a descriptor an object to be described and depicted itself, Figure 6 betrays not only Johns’s preoccupation with signs and semantics but also his philosophy of painting, which is that canvas is a surface that something should be “done to,” one that should be manipulated and experimented with. As the artist elucidated, “I've always thought of a painting as a surface; painting it in one color made this very clear…” (Jasper Johns, quoted in Kirk Varnedoe, ed., Jasper Johns, Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, New York, 1996, p. 82).

  • Artist Biography

    Jasper Johns

    American • 1930

    Jasper Johns is a painter and printmaker who holds a foundational place in twentieth century art history. Quoting the evocative gestural brushstroke of the Abstract Expressionists, Johns represented common objects such as flags, targets, masks, maps and numbers: He sought to explore things "seen and not looked at, not examined" in pictorial form.  Drawing from common commercial and 'readymade' objects, such as newspaper clippings, Ballantine Ale and Savarin Coffee cans, Johns was a bridge to Pop, Dada and Conceptual art movements.

    Beyond the historical significance, each work by Johns is individually considered in sensuous form. A curiosity of medium led him to employ a range of materials from encaustic and commercial house paint to lithography, intaglio and lead relief.

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Property of a Private Collector


Figure 6

signed and dated "J. Johns 1964-72" on the reverse; further signed and dated "J. Johns 64-72" on the stretcher
Sculp-metal and collage on canvas
10 x 7 3/4 in. (25.4 x 19.7 cm.)
Executed in 1964-1972.

$2,000,000 - 3,000,000 

Sold for $2,420,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th C. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 November 2019