One of only two fully executed versions of this particular format of Jasper Johns' Numbers paintings, 0-9 from 1962, is a rare example of the artist's most iconic series. Together with his Flags and Targets, the artist's painting of numbers form the central core of a career that spanned one of the most dramatic periods in twentieth century art history--the polemic shift from Abstract Expressionism to Pop. 0-9 was produced at the culmination of the Numbers series and provides one of the most complex, yet visually arresting, examples from this important series. With these seemingly simple numerical sequences Johns began to explore the complicated relationship between form and meaning, both in terms of their cultural associations and how this relates to the relevance of modern painting. With its rhythmic simplicity and rich painterly impasto, 0-9 provides ample evidence of Johns' unique combination of intellectual exploration and painterly processes.
Guided by a grid of fine graphite lines, Johns lays out a sequence of numbers in two rows; 0 to 4 in one row on top of another row comprising of 5 through 9, and in turn placing these two rows above a larger single figure 0. Each digit is carefully rendered in oil and encaustic resulting in an energetic series of brushstrokes that defines not only the figure in question but also provides the ground. Remnants of a shadowy underlayer highlight the subtle gradations in the white paint, allowing the individual brushstrokes to become distinguished from one another--each one defining its intended figure before slowly merging into the encaustic ground. The duality displayed by the strict formality of the figures and the loose brushstrokes that define their presence is enriched by a series of Pollock-like drips which break free from the confines of the grid and add an additional degree of impasto- laden intrigue. The combination of the painterly drips, the soft (almost cloth-like) texture of the John Goodman paper and the formal rigidity provided by the sequence of numbers provides one of the most intoxicating experiences from this period of the artist's career, as curator Roberta Bernstein enthuses "Johns rewards the eye by the sensuous handling and palpable textures of his surfaces, while the numbers provide the concrete structure and conceptual framework that gives his art its unique character" (R. Bernstein, "Jasper Johns's Numbers: Uncertain Signs," in R. Bernstein & C. E. Foster, (eds.) Jasper Johns: Numbers, exh. cat., Cleveland Museum of Art, 2003, p. 13).
In 1955, soon after he completed his first Flag and Target paintings, Johns began to produce works based on numbers. One of his first works, Construction with Toy Piano, displayed a sequence of numbers on the wooden keys of a toy piano and like the Targets and Flags that were to follow, these numbers were forms that were flat, holistic designs and easily understandable. Over the next five years Johns would produce four series of numbers based works in a variety of configurations. The first, his Figures series, comprised of single numbers produced in encaustic and containing collaged pieces of newspaper within their construction. He purposely titled these works 'figures' rather than 'numbers' because, like de Kooning who had recently included the female figures in his gestural paintings, Johns wanted to retain figurative qualities in paintings too, arguing that the vertical orientation and graceful curves of the numerals evoked the human form. In 1957, he began to produce sequences of numbers using all ten digits, in order, beginning with 0 and ending with 9. This grid format grew out of his earlier Alphabets paintings, a series of monochrome grids which used letters of the alphabet and allowed a more involved compositional process than his single Figures. Ranging from large multi-colored grids in which sequences of numbers are repeated several times, as in Numbers in Color (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo), to Sculp-metal versions that were commissioned for the lobby of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center which emphasized the sculptural qualities of the motif, qualities that he would continue to explore in works such as the present example. With the 0-9 paintings that followed, Johns abbreviated his numerical arrangement to just one sequence of numbers split into two rows, 0-4 on top and 5-9 below. This allowed the individual forms of the numbers to become the focus of the work rather than the sequence in which they are placed. In 1960 he began working on the final manifestation of numerals with his 0 through 9 works in which he layered all 10 numerals directly on top of each other, abandoning the idea of the sequence altogether and allowing the form of each figure to be subsumed within the body of another and in the process producing a succession of new shapes and forms. Also in 1960, Johns began to investigate combining the 0-9 motif with his earlier single Figures and in 1962 he produced the present work which features the single sequence of numbers placed over a figure 0. This work and a smaller black version are the only two fully developed versions of this new format.
Johns' source material--his 'readymade' to use his hero Duchamp's moniker--is, in Johns' eyes, a construct--a figment straddling the pools of definition that separates abstraction from figuration. Yet, where de Kooning and his contemporaries were concerned with expressionism, Johns has presented the viewer with a deliberately inscrutable paint surface. Showing no emotion or meaning Johns has reconfigured the basic components of painting in a way that dispels any sense of illusion or illustration, forcing the viewer to acquaint themselves with the physical act of painting as a combination of motif, paint and support and nothing else.
In this way 0-9 demonstrates Johns' interest in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The artist particularly admired his investigations into the philosophy of language and the ordering of thoughts and their influence on meaning and what happens when this logic breaks down. By choosing to depict numerical digits in this way, Johns highlights the complex nature of numbers as a modern sign as numbers can be employed for the most mundane of purposes or represent the highest level of abstract thinking humans have achieved. They can be objective and formulaic or subjective and mystical--their forms can be used to represent good news or bad and ultimately the perceived importance of an individual, company or nation (monetary or otherwise) can be designated by their simple form. By removing these forms from their usual context and focusing on their formal qualities, in 0-9 Johns calls attention to their essence both as a familiar signpost that permeates contemporary life and as potentially charged entities embedded in our cultural psyche.