Jasper Johns (b. 1930)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection
Jasper Johns (b. 1930)

Gray Rectangles

Jasper Johns (b. 1930)
Gray Rectangles
signed and dated 'J. JOHNS 1957' (on the reverse)
encaustic on canvas with objects
60 x 60 in. (152.4 x 152.4 cm.)
Painted in 1957.
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Everett Ellin Gallery, Los Angeles
Ben and Judy Heller, New York, 1963
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Victor and Sally Ganz, New York, 1964
Their sale; Sotheby's, New York, 10 November 1988, lot 9
Acquired at the above sale by the late owner
N. Lynton, “London Letter: American Painting Exhibitions,” Art International, vol. 6, no. 4, May 1962, p. 97 (illustrated).
M. Kozloff, “The Inert and Frenetic,” Artforum, vol. 4, no. 7, March 1966, p. 44 (illustrated).
M. Kozloff, Jasper Johns, New York, 1967, p. 21, pl. 31 (illustrated in color).
R. Francis, Jasper Johns, New York, 1984, pp. 34-35 and 37, fig. 34 (illustrated in color).
R. Bernstein, Jasper Johns’ Paintings and Sculptures, 1954-1974: “The Changing Focus of the Eye”, Ann Arbor, 1985, pp. 33 and 40-41.
M. Welish, “When Is a Door Not a Door,” Art Journal, vol. 50, no. 1, Spring 1991, pp. 49-51, fig. 4 (illustrated).
M. Fitzgerald, ed., A Life of Collecting: Victor and Sally Ganz, London, 1997, pp. 96-97 (illustrated in color).
Jasper Johns: Retrospektive, exh. cat., Cologne, Museum Ludwig, 1997, pp. 132 and 152, pl. 25 (illustrated in color).
D. Ngo, ed., Art + Architecture: The Ebsworth Collection + Residence, San Francisco, 2006, n.p. (illustrated in color and installation views illustrated).
J. Yau, A Thing Among Things: The Art of Jasper Johns, New York, 2008, p. 37.
R. Bernstein, H. Colsman-Freyberger, C. Sweeney and B. S. Zinn, Jasper Johns: Catalogue Raisonné of Painting and Sculpture, Volume 2, Painting, 1954-1970, New Haven and London, 2016, pp. 46-47, no. P23 (illustrated in color).
Paris, Galerie Rive-Droite, Jasper Johns, January 1959.
Milan, Galleria del Naviglio, Jasper Johns: 287a Mostra del Naviglio, March 1959.
New York, Stable Gallery; Carbondale, Allyn Gallery, Fine Arts Festival at Southern Illinois University; Indianapolis, John Herron Art Institute; Tallahassee, Florida State University; Watch Hill, Holiday Art Center; Ithaca, White Art Museum, Cornell University; Kent State University; Atlanta Public Library; Aurora, Wells College, School of New York: Some Younger Artists, December 1959-March 1961, no. 9.
Vienna, Galerie Würthle; Saltzburg, Zwerglgarten; Belgrade, Kalemegdan Pavilion; Skopje, Umetnicki Pavilion; Zagreb, Moderna Galerija; Maribor, Umetnostna Galerija; Ljubljana, Moderna Galerija; Rijeka, Gallery of Fine Arts; London, USIS Gallery, American Embassy; Darmstadt, Hessisches Landesmuseum, Vanguard American Painting, June 1961-May 1962, no. 37.
Los Angeles, Everett Ellin Gallery, Jasper Johns: Retrospective Exhibition, November-December 1962, no. 13.
New York, Jewish Museum, Jasper Johns, February-April 1964, no. 14.
Venice Biennale, United States Pavilion, Quattro Pittori Germinali/ Four Germinal Painters (Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns), June-October 1964, no. 40.
London, Whitechapel Gallery, Jasper Johns: Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, 1954-1964, December 1964, no. 8 (illustrated in color).
Pasadena Art Museum, Jasper Johns, January-February 1965, no. 17.
New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, Ten Years, February-March 1967, n.p. (illustrated).
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Cologne, Museum Ludwig; Paris, Musée National d’Arte Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou; London, Hayward Gallery; Tokyo, Seibu Museum of Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Jasper Johns, October 1977-December 1978, n.p., pl. 36 (illustrated in color).
Museum of the City of Cologne, Westkunst: Zeitgenössische Kunst seit 1939, May-August 1981, p. 233, no. 543 (illustrated in color).
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Blam! The Explosion of Pop, Minimalism, and Performance, 1958-1964, September-December 1984.
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Hand Painted Pop: American Art in Transition, 1955-62, July-October 1993, p. 125 (illustrated in color).
New York, Museum of Modern Art, Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, October 1996-January 1997, p. 146, no. 24 (illustrated in color).
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art; Seattle Art Museum, Twentieth-Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection, March-November 2000, pp. 147-151 and 288, no. 33 (illustrated in color).
Art Institute of Chicago; New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jasper Johns: Gray, November 2007-May 2008, pp. 44, 56, 149, 159 and 164, no. 10 (illustrated in color).
Seattle Art Museum, Big Picture: Art After 1945, July-November 2016.
Special notice
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.

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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

Jasper Johns’s Gray Rectangles is an important early work by one of America’s most respected and influential artists. Painted in 1957, during a period of sustained productivity in which he would produce some of his most seminal works, it combines several of his most important motifs—namely the use of encaustic monochrome and the color gray. Its rich, highly textured surface demonstrates Johns’s highly intellectual approach to art, displaying the artist’s unique approach to painting, sculpture, objecthood along with that of color and form. Widely exhibited, a sign of Gray Rectangles’s important place within not only the artist’s oeuvre, but also that of the postwar American artistic cannon, is that—in addition to the collection of Barney Ebsworth—it was also part of the legendary collection of Victor and Sally Ganz for over 20 years.

Across the surface of this large-scale painting lies the evidence the of the densely-packed encaustic brushwork that has come to distinguishes Johns’s work. Comprising of a flurry of staccato brushstrokes made up of pigment and hot wax, the result is a painterly patchwork of various shades of gray; ranging from the almost white to the near black, they come together in a tapestry of boisterous activity. The result is as luxurious as it is varied, a supreme example of the artist’s belief in the inherent values of painting itself and the mastery of paint handling. “His handling of gray allows an evenness of expression, monochromatic, but never monotonous… Johns’s grays encompass a nearly infinite zone of differentiated hues and values, always rich in medium tones, deployed within a range of finite physical manifestations” (J. Rondeau, “Jasper Johns Gray,” in J. Rondeau and D. Druick, eds., Jasper Johns Gray, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 2007, p. 27).

Inserted into the surface of the canvas are the three rectangles that give the work its name. Evoking the recesses in Johns’s earlier works such as Target with Plaster Casts (1955), Target with Four Faces (1955), (Museum of Modern Art, New York), and the compartment from Drawer (1957) (Rose Museum, Brandeis University), the panels cannot be opened or removed, instead they are evidence of the artist’s long-established belief in the sculptural nature of his paintings. To further assert their presence in the composition, Johns painted the inset forms a different color, beginning with red for the extreme left form, then yellow and finally blue. He then painted over these primary colors with the gray encaustic, leaving only traces of the original color to tantalize the viewer. “These bits of color invite the viewer to scrutinize the surface, suggesting that there may be more to see in the overall gray monochrome than is initially apparent” (R. Bernstein, (Eds.), Jasper Johns Catalogue Raisonné of Painting and Sculpture, vol. 1, New Haven, 2016, p. 73).

These rectangles are in many ways precursors to the found objects that Johns included in many of the paintings that would follow. They not only referenced one of his artistic heroes (Marcel Duchamp), but they also demonstrate his widely-held belief that a painting was fundamentally an object, rather than the evocation of an experience that many painters of his generation believed, and therefore the, “…the literal qualities of the painting…predominate over any of the others” (J. Johns, quoted in D. Druick, “Jasper Johns: Gray Matters,” in J. Rondeau and D. Druick, (Eds.), Jasper Johns Gray, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 2007, p. 81). Thus, Gray Rectangles is emblematic of the work that he executed during this significant period; a work in which Johns investigated the fundamental nature of painting. “At first I had some idea that the absence of color made the work more physical,” he told the New York Times in 2008. “Early on I was very involved with the notion of the painting as an object and tended to attack that idea from different directions” (J. Johns, quoted in C. Vogel, “The Gray Areas of Jasper Johns,” New York Times, February 3, 2008, via www.nytimes.com [accessed 8/18/2018]).

Fundamental to this new way of painting was Johns’s use of encaustic. Mixing together hot wax and pigment meant that any paint application would dry very quickly, and in a semi-translucent way, laying bare much more than before the painterly process. Johns was an enthusiastic champion of this innovative medium and used it on a number of his important paintings from this period, including his now iconic Flag paintings. “It was very simple,” he said. “I wanted to show what had gone before in a picture and what was done after. But if you put a heavy brushstroke in [oil] paint, and then add another stroke, the second stroke smears into the first unless the paint is dry. And paint takes too long to dry. I didn’t know what to do. Then someone suggested wax. It worked very well; as soon as the wax was cool I could put on another stroke and it would not alter the first” (J. Johns, quoted in M. Prather, Twentieth-Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 147).

Gray Rectangles also exemplifies Johns’s adoption of monochrome as a major mode of expression. From his earliest works, the adopted the use of a singular color to avoid what he termed “the color situation.” The encaustic paintings were done in gray because to me this suggested a kind of literal quality that was unmoved by coloration and thus avoided all the emotional and dramatic quality of color,” he said. “Black and White is very leading. It tells you what to say or do. The gray encaustic paintings seemed to allow the literal qualities of the painting to predominate any others” (J. Johns, ibid.).

In additional to its physical and painterly properties, Gray Rectangles is distinguished by its exceptional provenance. It was the first work by Johns to be acquired the legendary collectors Victor and Sally Ganz, and would come to be the cornerstone of what was widely regarded to be one of the most complete collection of the artist’s work ever assembled, either privately or publicly. Other Johns masterpieces collected by the Ganzes included, Liar, 1961; Driver, 1963; Souvenir 2, 1964; Decoy, 1971; Corpse and Mirror, 1974. The natural inquisitiveness of the collectors was a natural fit with that of the artist, “Victor savored the work’s complex, multilayered meanings and appreciated the craft and invention of Johns’s use of artistic media of different kinds,” writes Roberta Bernstein. “He relished following the continuity and change in John’s constantly evolving iconography and the rigorous logic evidenced in it” (R. Bernstein, in M. Fitzgerald, A Life of Collecting: Victor and Sally Ganz, New York, 1997, p. 89). Gray Rectangles is one of the most rigorous examples of John’s examination into the process of perception—and as such demonstrated the robustness that the Ganzes sought out in works that were to enter their collection.

Jasper Johns has earned his position as one of America’s most respected artists. The duration and breadth of his practice is based on his unceasing quest to examine and reexamine the central tenets of art. “Johns is widely recognized for over fifty years of rigorously inventive, impeccably executed objects… Not only is he credited with forging a generative set of propositions that advanced painting beyond the rhetorical endgames of Abstract Expressionism, but he is also recognized as a progenitor of Pop Art and, in his reductive literalist, and anti-illusionist modes, as a catalyst for much Minimal and Conceptual art” (J. Rondeau, “Jasper Johns Gray,” in J. Rondeau and D. Druick, (Eds.), Jasper Johns Gray, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 2007, p. 26). Painted during the early years of his career, Gray Rectangles provides the foundation upon which the rest of his career was built.

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