Figure Zero was painted in 1959 at Johns' Front Street studio where he painted other small works of single numbers such as Figure 4 and Figure 8 along with other masterpieces: Device Circle, Reconstruction, False Start, Jubilee, Thermometer, Two Flags, White Numbers, and others. Jasper Johns was already acknowledged as a force to be reckoned with. He had only had his first one-man show - a sold-out exhibition at Leo Castelli's gallery - at the beginning of the previous year, yet his work had had a huge impact, moving the goalposts for an entire generation of artists. This was in part due to the searing literalness with which he approached the picture surface, using found subject matter as a pretext for an exploration of the bare bones of painting itself, and as a pretext to be able to continue to apply, with a sense of validity, pigment to canvas. With its gestural brushstrokes in a riot of colours covering so much of the surface, Figure 0 perfectly demonstrates Johns' drive forwards, his deconstruction and reconstruction of painting.
Johns' number paintings such as Figure 0 took the ambiguous ontological status of the Flags and Targets, which after all are real objects as well as symbols, and pushed it to a new precarious brink: numbers really are abstractions, especially zero, which is literally nothing. Numbers and letters do not exist as entities in their own right, as has been recently emphasised by the Museum of Modern Art's recent much-publicized, controversial addition of the @ sign to its collection. This is a maneuver that Johns had pre-empted by more than half a century, using the ubiquity, compositional formality and ambiguity of the figure zero as the ultimate cipher-like template for painting.
In a sense, Johns' use of such symbols was a response to Willem de Kooning. Only a few years earlier, the Abstract Expressionist had caused controversy by reintroducing the figure into his work, especially in his Woman paintings. Here, Johns has introduced the figure in a completely different way, and one that ironically could still be argued to be abstract. His source material - his readymade - is a construct, a figment, straddling the pools of definition that separate abstraction from figuration. Johns has employed a vibrant palette in Figure 0 and has employed vigorous, often stabbing gestures in order to achieve the fantastic surface, even employing collage elements as de Kooning had.
There is thus a strong link between his work and that of the Abstract Expressionists who still held such huge sway over the art world of the time, yet the similarities end at the surface. Where Abstract Expressionism was concerned with expression, Johns has presented the viewer with a deliberately neutral, inscrutable surface of paint. What is here, besides oil, canvas and collage? No emotion, no meaning, literally and deliberately void. Johns has reconfigured the basic components of painting in a way that dispels any sense of illusion or illustration: he is forcing the viewer to become aware of the actual nature of a painting as an object, as a combination of motif, paint and support. Discussing the paradoxical nature of his paintings, which are empty and yet potently overt, Johns said:
'Meaning implies that something is happening; you can say meaning is determined by the use of the thing, the way an audience uses a painting once it is put in public. When you speak of what is depicted, I tend to think in terms of an intention. But the intention is usually with the artist. 'Subject matter'? Where would you focus to determine subject matter?...' (quoted in "Interview with G.R. Swenson," pp. 323-24, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, K. Stiles and P. Selz, eds., Berkeley, Los Angeles & London, 1996, p. 324).
In Figure 0, to focus on the content of the figure itself is pointless: it is elusive. But to focus on the figure as a vortex within this swirling mass of color, of paint, reveals the simple crux: the painting is the subject matter.
Johns' decision to break into color came precisely during the year that he painted Figure 0, in 1959. Now, in works such as this and othere masterpieces such as False Start, an explosion of color filled many of his paintings, aligning them with those of his great friend and fellow artistic pioneer, Robert Rauschenberg. Indeed, Figure 0 has a compositional and color similarity to Rauschenberg's red Combines. Where Rauschenberg allowed paint to exist on the surface of his works as paint, without emotional or conceptual meanings hanging on it, Johns has used a related visual vocabulary to throw the act of painting into question.
Johns had gained his acclaim at Castelli's with his encaustic works; these had been rendered in a rigorously-controlled palette often using monochrome or a range of colors determined by the subject matter itself, for instance in the Flags; now he carried out what seemed to be an intriguing volte-face yet did so in a manner that remained consistent with his concerns. In Figure 0 and the other polychrome works of the era, he used a palette that remained largely grounded in the prime colors and secondary colors; here, red, blue and yellow dominate, with interspersed flecks of orange and other colors. This new introduction of color, albeit a controlled burst, kept his viewers and critics on their toes. It also allowed Johns to explore further the nature of painting, and crucially contrasted dramatically with the content: Figure 0 is full of colored paint, in opposition to the void that lies at its core. Johns has deliberately played with the nothingness implied by the zero and by its context-less presentation of a symbol and the contrasting fullness of the painting, creating an expressly precarious and incongruous tension between the subject matter and the surface.
Of course, Johns' subject-matter, the zero, while abstract in conception, was a readymade as well. This is a stencilled-looking figure, a found image that has been rendered in oils. Johns explained of the letters and numerals that figure in his art that their strength, for him, was that: 'They seemed to me preformed, conventional, depersonalised, factual, exterior elements' (quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2002, p. 151). Figure 0 presents the viewer with an element from the print media that surrounds us every day. When asked by Leo Steinberg, who was investigating the role of the artist's own personality in the decisions behind these emphatically opaque paintings, whether he used these stencil types because he liked them or because they were found, Johns answered with perfect, frustrating clarity: 'That's what I like about them, that they come that way' (quoted in R. Francis, Modern Master: Jasper Johns, New York, London & Paris, 1991, p. 29). Like the target and the flag, the figure zero was a construct that existed within the fabric of the print and multi-media ages, and was therefore ripe for appropriation. It exists, as does the painting itself, and it is this existential cousinship that Johns tapped into in Figure Zero and its related works:
'I'm interested in things which are rather than in judgments. The most conventional things, the most ordinary things-- it seems to me that those things can be dealt with without having to judge them; they seem to me to exist as clear facts not involving aesthetic hierarchy' (quoted in R. Francis, Modern Masters: Jasper Johns, New York, London & Paris, 1991, p. 21).
Of course, by taking a number as his subject matter, Johns could not help but invoke a certain amount of "visual hierarchy," particularly as his supposedly objective and opaque choice of font for his numerals recalls, especially in his Figure 5 paintings, Charles Demuth's celebrated 1928 work, The Figure Five in Gold, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This was arguably the first painting to celebrate the potency of the landscape and language of signs and symbols that makes up so much of the modern world. Demuth was taking his cue from a poem about a passing fire truck with a big, shining numeral, written by William Carlos Williams The Great Figure, thereby invoking a sense of mystery, dynamism and revelation. Johns shuns mystery, instead relying deliberately on the clarity of his image in Figure 0 and its sister-works; he shuns dynamism except the dynamism of his own actions in applying paint to the picture surface; but he is concerned with revelation, with showing the viewer something new about the world we take for granted, be it in the form of the numerals and their formal qualities, of paintings and their formal qualities, or the act of creation itself.