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Jasper Johns, one of the most uniquely original of the artists who came to prominence in the late fifties, was born in Augusta, Georgia,
the son of a farmer. His youth was a period of uprootedness in which he lived successively with various relatives. During a brief period at the University of South Carolina, he had his first formal training in art. While in New York, in 1949, Johns was drafted into the Army and stationed in Japan. By 1952, back in New York, he began to paint, supporting himself with various odd jobs. Johns shared a loft, in New York, with Robert Rauschenberg, and came to meet the composer John Cage. Johns became fascinated with Cage's ideas about the lack of boundaries between art and the ordinary materials of the world and, in 1955, he began a series of paintings based on the American flag, followed by a series of targets and sequences of numbers and letters.
These subjects are formal systems or grids, and are central to Johns' art, which he explained as being concerned with things that are
looked at, seen over and over, but not really seen. Because their basic design had already been accomplished elsewhere, he could, by transferring them to the canvas, "recreate" them, creating new perceptions of these forms by questioning their basic identity. These early paintings all use the rare medium of wax encaustic: pigment folded into wax and newspaper strips then dipped into the colored wax and affixed to the canvas. More wax was then brushed on the surface, giving a heavily brush stroked appearance and causing the object to seem slightly embedded within the medium.
In 1959, Johns saw a collection of Marcel Duchamp "objects," an experience which was to cause a metamorphosis in his work during the sixties. Johns began to use the paint itself as a new kind of structure, affixing objects such as a broom or ruler to the canvas. Johns' paintings had a considerable influence on both the "Pop Art" of the sixties and on the depersonalized, hard edged abstractions of artists such as Frank Stella and Kenneth Nolan.