Through the use of mundane, well-known images such as flags, targets, letters and numbers, Jasper Johns has paradoxically created one of the most visually compelling and intellectually engaging bodies of work created by any artist in the twentieth century. The transformation of such banal subjects into the complex and intriguing paintings and sculptures for which he is known is an act akin to the alchemist's transformation of lead into gold, and has kept Johns in the forefront of American artists since his first one-man exhibition at Leo Castelli's gallery in 1958.
0-9 was executed with the same type of stenciled figure commonly found at the stationery store. Johns used stencils because they relieved him having to design his own image and allowed him to work on other levels of perception. His images of targets, American flags and letters exhibit the same choice: all are "pre-designed"--that is, all can be used as is, in the format that they come naturally, like flags and targets; or can be arranged systematically, like the numbers or alphabets. The critic Leo Steinberg, in conversation with the artist, asked Johns about the choice of the common stencils he used:
"Q. You nearly always use the same type. Any particular reason?
A. That's how the stencils come.
Q. But if you preferred another typeface, would you think it improper to cut your own stencils?
A. Of course not.
Q. Then you really do like these best?
This answer is so evident that I wondered why I asked the question at all; ah, yes,--because Johns would not see the obvious distinction between free choice and external necessity. Let me try again:
Q. Do you use these letter types because you like them or because that's how the stencils come?
A. But that's what I like about them, that they come that way."
(M. Crichton, Jasper Johns, New York 1977, p. 14)
The use of encaustic, John's normal painting technique, which is oil paint dissolved in wax, allows the artist to build up layers of translucent paint quickly, because the wax dries more rapidly than the normal oil medium. Johns utilizes these mediums since they keep the character of each brushstroke, even in layers, and subtly emphasize the surface of the canvas. Furthermore, the white color of 0-9 emphasizes the translucent quality of the painting application, and its surface qualities emphasize the objectness of the work.