Figure 3 by Jasper Johns evokes the importance and virtuosity of the artist in the profoundest senses. Rendering this seemingly neutral sign with a kind of loving reverence and exquisite paint handling, Johns transforms a ubiquitous sign into a portrayal of touching characterization. Like so much that is pivotal in art, after Johns' individual numbers, these common everyday signs are never seen in the same way again.
As the crucial hinge between Post-War World II American art and all that came after, Johns is arguably as important as any artist of the twentieth-century. He transformed the extravagant approach to abstraction by the earlier generation into a highly controlled, meticulous, even calculating handling of medium. But he did all this while rendering motifs found in everyday life, thereby setting the stage for Pop Art. And because he often selected geometrical patterns such as targets, flags and numbers, and approached art in such a cerebral fashion, Johns is usually given credit for being the progenitor of Minimal and Conceptual Art, too. Indeed, he is a veritable fountainhead of artistic strategies for American artists of the second half of the twentieth century.
Figure 3 belongs to the acclaimed early period of Johns's art, and in typical fashion is part of a long series. In this case, the series began in 1955, with a group of four small works, each devoted to a single number, one of which was Figure 5. In this Johns must have been influenced by the famous Charles Demuth painting entitled I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, a work of hallucinatory intensity. Following six more canvases of numbers in 1959, he made the grandly-scaled Figure 5 in 1960. Sequences of numbers form a second approach to the theme, but it is in the small canvases like Figure 3 that Johns attains perhaps his most personal renderings. As Roberta Bernstein has pointed out, Johns' choice for the title, Figure, evokes the idea that these works are, indeed, figurative "portraits' metaphorically and in the sense that each fills the space of the canvas like that of a human being centered in a painted space' (R. Bernstein, op. cit., p. 21).
In so much of Johns' art, there is the sense of the painted object being a sculptural entity. Toward that end, in Figure 3 the artist employs a favorite material called sculptmetal, which is usually used for model-building, in combination with collage elements to give the work a powerful physical presence. Leaving the bottom edge of the canvas untouched further adds to this sense of a hand-wrought object, seen in the process of its making.
Jasper Johns, 0 Through 9, 1961 c Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Johns working on the Sculp-metal Numbers for the New York State Theater, Lincoln Center, about 1964 Photograph by Dan Budnik