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Small False Start

Small False Start
signed, dated and partially titled 'J. Johns 1960 FALSE START' (on the reverse)
encaustic, acrylic and paper collage on fiberboard
21 7/8 x 18 1/4 in. (55.6 x 46.4 cm.)
Executed in 1960
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York.
Mr. and Mrs. Charles M. Clark, Seattle (acquired from the above, 1960).
Joseph H. Hazen and Lita Annenberg Hazen, New York (acquired from the above, November 1961).
Anon. sale, Christie's, New York, 7 November 1989, lot 76.
Stephen and Nan Swid, New York (acquired at the above sale).
Acquired from the above by the late owner, 2000.
H. Rosenberg, “Jasper Johns: 'Things the Mind Already Knows'” in Vogue, February 1964, vol. 143, no. 3, pp. 174-177, 201 and 203.
M. Kozloff, Jasper Johns, New York, 1967 (illustrated, pl. 57).
R. Bernstein, Jasper Johns: Catalogue Raisonné of Painting and Sculpture, 1954-1970, New York and New Haven, 2017, vol. 2, p. 164, no. P82 (illustrated in color, p. 195).
R. Bernstein, Jasper Johns: Catalogue Raisonné of Painting and Sculpture, 1954-1970, New York and New Haven, 2017, vol. 5, no. P82 (illustrated in color, p. 121).
Minneapolis, University of Minnesota, University Gallery, Paintings by Jaspers Johns, May-June 1960.
Jerusalem, Israel Museum; Cambridge, Harvard University, Fogg Art Museum; Los Angeles, University of California, Dickson Art Center; Berkeley, University of California, Powerhouse Gallery; Houston, Museum of Fine Arts and Honolulu Academy of Arts, Paintings from the Collection of Joseph H. Hazen, May 1966-August 1967, no. 13 (titled The Little False Start and dated 1959-1960; detail illustrated in color on the cover).
Seattle, Pivot Art + Culture, Color & Pattern, April-July 2017.
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Brought to you by

Max Carter
Max Carter Vice Chairman, 20th and 21st Century Art, Americas

Lot Essay

Exhibited only once since the 1960s, Jasper Johns’s Small False Start is an early masterpiece by one of the world’s greatest living artists. Its rich and dynamic surface displays Johns’s ever present interrogation of the artistic process, a life-long project which resulted in some of the most important and influential art works of the post-war canon. One of three works that Johns painted between 1959-1960 to explore perceptual cues and play the linguistic against the visual, it is with works such as this that the artist considers the fundamental questions of art. As such, Small False Start sits alongside the artist’s iconic Flags, Targets, and Maps as part of the pantheon of twentieth-century masterworks.
Small False Start is a kaleidoscope of color, medium, process, and meaning. Onto raw unprimed fiberboard Johns lays down a patchwork of colored paper; small pieces torn by the artist and then affixed to the surface. Tearing each piece by hand permeates the composition with a dynamic sense of energy, both within the individual elements themselves, and also together as they appear to jostle up against each other. Sometimes overlapping, sometimes leaving crevices in between adjacent elements, this time-consuming process results in tectonic plates of vibrant color. Evoking the Dada-ism of Kurt Schwitters and Jean (Hans) Arp and his collaged paper works such as his Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance) (1917, The Museum of Modern Art, New York), far from embracing chance, as Arp did, Johns carefully controls his composition to achieve his desired results. Onto this highly active surface Johns then stencils a series of words: ORANGE, BLUE, GRAY, YELLOW, and RED among them. They serve as players in a visual game of perception in that the color used does not match the word it spells out, let alone the passage of color on which it sits. This unraveling of the conceptual conceit of art is what lies at the heart of much of Johns's work.
In addition to the conceptual nature of art, central to Johns's concerns during this period was his investigations of different material and process. To the collaged paper elements, in Small False Start, Johns introduces two further elements: encaustic—first used six years earlier in his iconic Flag (1954-1955, The Museum of Modern Art, New York), and rivulets of acrylic paint that streak across the surface of the work. The encaustic acts to add substance to the composition, giving a degree of materiality to the surface, while the applied daubs of paint counteract this, imbuing the surface with a distinct sense of vitality and energy. The result is a painting which fizzes on both a conceptual and a visual level, a work that rewards close and considered inspection, and one of the paintings that would go on to define the rest of the artist’s long and illustrious career.
In the late 1950s, Johns began to break the link between the visual and perceptual meaning of language. Before this, the artist had incorporated individual numbers and letters into his compositions, but purely on formal grounds. He had also included some words, such as "Tennyson" in his eponymous 1958 gray painting, now in the collection of the Des Moines Art Center. In Out the Window (1959, Private collection), words struggle to manifest themselves in the chromatic chaos, but it is only with works such as False Start, Jubilee, and particularly Small False Start that we get a clear picture of what Johns is trying to achieve. It is only by freeing both the words and the colors they spell out from their literal and conceptual functions that we get a true representation of abstraction, and subsequently true freedom from the representational qualities of art.
Writing in the catalogue for the artist’s 2018 retrospective organized by the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the curators Roberta Bernstein and Edith Devaney succinctly characterized the essence of the artist’s career. “The visual and intellectual strength of Johns’s art,” they write, “derives from a symbiosis of idea, form, and process. He has chosen to develop his practice through the traditional categories of painting, sculpture, drawing, and printing: within each category he has embraced innovative approaches, and in many works he has dissolved the boundaries between them” ("Something Resembling Truth," in R. Bernstein, ed., Jasper Johns, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2018, p. 12). For Johns this symbiosis began in earnest with Flag (1954-1955, The Museum of Modern Art, New York), his early masterpiece that transcended the conventional boundaries of art by thinking about subject, meaning and materiality in a different way. Flag is simultaneously a physical object (a painting) and a representation of a physical object (a flag); it is also the representation of an idea, an idea of "American-ness" and all that this stands for. Even in its physical execution—comprised of a cut bedsheet, oil paint, newsprint, and encaustic—it speaks to its object-ness and its myriad meanings.
Yet, Johns was nothing if not a contrarian, for at the same time as he was utilizing a monochrome palette for several of his Maps, he was also painting a select number of canvases in a panoply of high-keyed hues, dealing specifically with the issue of color. Along with False Start and the monochrome Jubilee (both painted in 1959), Small False Start investigates the meaning of different colored pigments in both a visual and representational sense. In the present work, stenciled words spell out the names of colors—sometimes in those colors, sometimes not—hovering over passages of vivid pigment that may or may not represent the nomenclature on display. Thus, the word yellow may be depicted in blue pigment sitting over a block of vibrant red. “The idea is that the names of the colors will be scattered about on the surface of the canvas,” the curator Richard Francis wrote, “and there will be botches of color more or less on the same scale, and that one will have all the colors by name, more than by visual sensation” (Jasper Johns, New York, 1984, p. 37).
Johns’s natural curiosity extended beyond interrogating the formal aesthetic qualities of his subject matter, to include his materials and processes too. In the catalogue to the recent retrospective organized jointly by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the curators Carlos Basualdo and Scott Rothkopf highlighted the importance of materials to the artist’s practice. “Throughout his work,” they wrote, “Johns emphasizes process to a degree that boarders on obsession… [showing a] persistent and precise method that consists of exploring the boundaries of each medium with tools borrowed from one another, in order to ultimately erase those boundaries, as well as any hierarchies, with which they are traditionally associated” (“On ‘Jasper Johns’,” in C. Basualdo and S. Rothkopf, eds., Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021, p. 20). We can see this in Johns’s use of use of newspaper, bed sheets, encaustic and other "non-traditional" materials in the works we have already discussed. It can also be seen in his use of aluminum in Numbers (1963-1978). Johns has been working in metal—in a more traditional sense—since the late 1950s and his early cast sculptures of lightbulbs, Ballantine beer cans and paint brushes soon became some of his most provocative early work. In Numbers (1963-1978), the artist continues his investigation into the formal qualities of his subject matter, but by executing the sequence of digits in pressed aluminum, Johns embraces the physical properties of the material (rather than the subject) to create meaning by casting another light (literally) over the work. “By his combination of uneven, tactile surfaces, shifting light, numbers… Johns collapses the different cycles of time that we all inhabit as well as acknowledges that the social domain from, or triumphant over, nature” (J. Yau, “Jasper Johns New Sculpture and Works on Paper,” The Brooklyn Rail, July-August 2011, online” https://brooklynrail.org/2011/07/artseen/jasper-johns-new-sculpture-and-works-on-paper).
Throughout his career, and through his wide ranging interest in different media, Johns is fundamentally interested in issues of representation. Bridging the gap between abstraction and Pop, he sought inspiration in the forms and images that he saw around him. Yet he differed from other artists of his generation like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein in that his interest in the iconography of his chosen subject matter is based on their formal associations and how that changes (or not) in the context of their use in art. Of Johns’s work, Bernstein noted “Their subjects were not drawn from the topical mass media but were intrinsic to culture and deeply ingrained in human consciousness. Their uncertain status, hovering between art work and the thing itself, focused attention on the process of perception, how reality is represented through visual signs, and how the viewer interprets those signs. In this, they did not so much reject abstraction and subjectivity as forge a new way to integrate abstraction with representation and make more apparent the viewer’s role in investing the art work with meaning” ("Jasper Johns’s Numbers: Uncertain Signs," in R. Bernstein and C. E. Foster, eds., Jasper Johns: Numbers, exh. cat., Cleveland Museum of Art, 2003, p. 12).
Jasper Johns is one of the twentieth-century’s most prolific and innovative artists. He has done more than anyone else to interrogate the creativity of the artistic process, resulting in a body of work that is as vital and invigorating as it is broad. From painting to sculpture, Johns is the master of his chosen mediums, excited by their formal properties and investigating and manipulating them to push at the boundaries of art. Along with Robert Rauschenberg, he ignited the ideas that would lead to American Pop Art and the subsequent movements beyond. Never predictable and always thoughtful, his paintings and other works strike a careful balance between their international status as icons, and the more personal, intimate pull that they elicit in each individual viewer. “Johns’s art is a constant reminder that the truth is not a given,” concludes Bernstein and Devaney, “but rather is revealed through the layered and shifting meanings uncovered through the process of perception. Fixed habits of seeing, feeling, and thinking render the truth invisible. A flicker of grace occurs when the senses are awakened and new ways of experiencing the world, even ordinary objects in the world, provide a glimpse of that truth” (exh. cat., op. cit., 2018, p. 12).

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