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On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more Visionary: The Paul G. Allen Collection


signed and misdated 'J. Johns 1963-78' (on the reverse)
57 3/8 x 43 5/8 in. (145.7 x 110.8 cm.)
Conceived in 1963 and cast in 1968
Acquired from the artist by the late owner, 2001.
R. Bernstein, Jasper Johns: Catalogue Raisonné of Painting and Sculpture; Sculpture, New York and New Haven, 2016, vol. 4, p. 84, no. S42 (illustrated in color, p. 85).
R. Bernstein, Jasper Johns: Catalogue Raisonné of Painting and Sculpture, 1954-1970, New York and New Haven, 2017, vol. 5, no. S42 (illustrated in color, p. 213).
Vancouver Art Gallery; Regina, Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery and Montreal, Musée d'Art Contemporain, New York 13, January-July 1969 (titled Aluminum Numbers and dated 1969). Philadelphia, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Grids, January-March 1972 (dated 1963-1969).
Akron Art Institute, Grids: Format and Image in 20th Century Art, March-May 1979 (illustrated; dated 1963-1978).
Atlanta, Heath Gallery, Out of the South: An Exhibition of Work by Artists Born in the South, October 1982, p. 17, no. 3 (illustrated; dated 1963-1978).
Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales; South Brisbane, Queensland Art Gallery; Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria and Houston, Menil Collection, Pop Art, 1955-1970, February-August 1985, p. 47 (illustrated in color; dated 1963-1978).
Houston, Menil Collection and Leeds City Art Gallery, Jasper Johns: The Sculptures, February-June 1996, p. 103 (illustrated in color, p. 96; dated 1963-1978).
Philadelphia, Museum of American Art of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Pop Abstraction, February-April 1998 (dated 1963/1978).
Seattle, Experience Music Project, DoubleTake: From Monet to Lichtenstein, April 2006-January 2007, pp. 26-27 (illustrated in color; dated 1963-1978).
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror, September 2021-February 2022, p. 85, no. 38 (illustrated in color).
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Max Carter
Max Carter Vice Chairman, 20th and 21st Century Art, Americas

Lot Essay

Acquired directly from the artist in 2001, having been in his personal collection for over three decades, Numbers is one of Jasper Johns’s seminal works. Together with Flags, Targets, and Maps, this rendering of a sequence of numbers from 0 to 9 forms 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. It is also one of his most visually simple, yet conceptually complex works, and speaks to the essential elements of Johns’s practice. With this seemingly simple numerical sequence he 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 art. As such, this particular example has been widely exhibited, including in the recent major retrospective Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror, organized jointly by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, and provides ample evidence of Johns’s unique combination of intellectual exploration and artistic processes.
Gridded, gray, and cast in aluminum, the instantly recognizable Numbers is the product of Johns’s technical virtuosity, conceptual brilliance, and singular attentiveness to form and import. This masterwork combines these features to gorgeously demonstrate the richness of open-ended, expansive, and recombinant meaning. The work achieves this conceptual aim while balancing the abstraction inherent to numbers with detailed, consciously concrete renderings that draw attention to surface and thus to the nature of the artwork as an object. In the manmade system of mathematics, a series of finite digits, zero through nine, are capable of producing the infinite.
In Numbers, the logical repeating forms of figures and structuring grids become unmanageably expansive in a parade of signifiers. In this canonical work, digits (taken from a commercially available stencil) from zero to nine have been cast into a grid. When asked by art critic Leo Steinberg whether he used stenciled numbers and letters because he liked the typography or simply because the stencils came that way, Johns famously replied with an enigmatic, “But that’s what I like about them, that they come that way” (quoted in L. Steinberg, “Jasper Johns,” in Metro, May 1962, p. 94). The formatting of the present grid into repeating rows of discrete rectangles of digits has been determined by the sequence of numbers. These are among the most recognizable of Johns’s motifs, a selection of everyday objects and forms that the artist took as his starting point in his explorations of meaning-making and perception. These ubiquitous digits served as what the artist described as, “things the mind already knows”—forms that one regularly encounters and instantly recognizes but rarely considered as forms (quoted in W. Hopps, “An Interview with Jasper Johns,” Artforum 3, March 1965, p. 34). However, Johns made the perceptive leap that the abstraction and flatness of numbers actually aesthetically connected them with the flat surfaces of Abstract Expressionism. Yet in contrast to the emphasis on spontaneity, subjective experience, and free-flowing brushwork that characterized that particular movement, Numbers is emotionally disengaged and highly controlled, an exercise in the experience of looking that takes numbers as its starting point in order to crucially “work on other levels” (Johns, quoted in Jasper Johns Flags, 1955-1964, exh. cat., Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London, 1996, p. 15).
Numbers pits the mind and the eye against one another, producing a system that undoes and proceeds to rebuild logic. On one level, the present work is a collection of flat, abstract forms rendered in nuanced gray tonalities. Catherine Craft explicates in a monograph on Johns: “In selecting recognizable subjects, Johns seemed to reject prevailing abstract modes of painting, yet his subjects themselves—flags, targets, numbers—each possessed a vital characteristic of classical abstraction, namely a flatness rendering them all indistinguishable from the picture plane itself” (Jasper Johns, New York, 2009, p. 10). This work can be viewed as an allover nonrepresentational field, a flat plane that draws attention to its hand worked surface. Yet the mind, primed and anxious to draw meaning from the abstraction, picks out digits, identifying the recognizable, logical form of numbers and grids. The half-life of this logic quickly breaks down once more, as the sequential gridding ends up functioning not only to organize the numbers but also to deconstruct them. Poet John Yau has noted that Johns’s aesthetic approach takes construction and deconstruction as two sides of the same coin: “It is Johns’s belief that both form and dissolution must be present in his work that underlies all his choices” ("Jasper Johns’s Preoccupation," The American Poetry Review, vol. 35, no. 1, January/February 2006, p. 44).
Thus, in keeping with the very best work by Johns, Numbers flickers between abstraction and representation, refusing to fully alight upon either. Its contemplative aesthetic is not one of emptiness, but of mutability, of the ways in which perception can frequently break down and shift. This work touches upon several key moments in Johns’s aesthetic trajectory. The piece has the wealth of gray tones—Johns is frequently heralded as a singular tonalist—that characterize Johns’s work from the ‘60s onward and have come to be the subject of major exhibitions including the retrospective “Gray” at the Art Institute of Chicago and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 2007-2008. At the same time, Numbers clearly emerges from that groundbreaking moment in the mid-to-late 1950s when Johns first turned to everyday objects and forms as his subject, in a move away from the Abstract Expressionism that dominated New York’s avant-garde at the time.
In 1952, two years prior to the artist’s now near-mythic destruction of all of his early work, Johns first produced collages in grids. 1955 witnessed the introduction of numbers to Johns’s work when the artist created a series of encaustic and collage paintings each featuring a single numeral; the series was entitled Figures. In 1957, Johns first combined his exploration of digits with a gridded format in the sequential number grid, which quickly became recognized as some of his most important work. Ultimately, Johns developed four subsets of his celebrated numeral motif: Numbers (a number grid), Figures (a single number), 09 or Ten Numbers (an abbreviated ten-unit number grid), and 0 through 9 (a superimposition of numbers). Contemplative and painstaking variation on a theme in this manner is of course the hallmark of Johns, as he creates permutations of a form or object across media. As one art historian stated perceptively of Johns’s motifs, “The theme has been a pretext for the variations played on it” (A. Graham-Dixon, “Flags of convenience,” The Independent, 2 July, 1996, n.p.).
In the manmade system of mathematics, a series of finite digits, zero through nine, are capable of producing the infinite. In Johns’s hands they poetically swell into a conceptual expanse that dwarfs the humans who originally prescribed their form and meaning. The beauty inherent to numbers—both in their flat, abstracted, curves and lines, and in their capacity to express the ineffable—is frequently unexamined due to their quotidian nature. Yet to the insightful Johns, the ordinary provides rich grounds for vital and perceptive exploration.

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