What does Jasper Johns have in common with Lucille Ball, Warren Buffett, Estee Lauder, Colin Powell, and John Wooden? They are all recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award that can be bestowed on a civilian in the United States, honoring those who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” It is awarded annually to individuals chosen by the President; Obama will bestow the medal on Johns in Washington later this month.
It seems very fitting for Johns to be honored in this way, as he is particularly known for his images of the American flag as well as of the United States map. (He is also famous for his images of numbers, targets, and other “ordinary” subjects.) Johns—along with Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, and others—was among the first artists to use these everyday subjects in his art, creating what became known as Pop Art. However, the heavily worked surfaces of Johns’ early paintings such as Figure 7, in LACMA’s collection, still connect him to the Abstract Expressionist painters who preceded him.
Johns often chose to depict two-dimensional objects (maps, targets, flags, numbers, letters) so that the flatness of the object depicted and the flatness of the painting itself were coincident.
LACMA owns forty-seven works by Johns and presented the exhibition Jasper Johns: Numbers in 2004. We are proud to salute this modern master as he is honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Who knows, perhaps Johns’ next subject will be the medal itself!
Carol S. Eliel, Curator of Modern Art