"What's interesting about using an existing image is that you can see how other things affect the meaning. But you can't separate this from the way it was done. You work a certain way, you get a certain kind of meaning" (J. Johns, "Lasting Impressions: A Johns Print Retrospective," Vanity Fair, May 1986, p. 117).
A single, solitary number has little concrete visual substance, especially in Fine Art. This may be precisely why Jasper Johns began working on the number series in 1955, and continued to return to the motif through a variety of medium into the mid 1990s. Developed from mass produced, commercial stencils, the typography of the numbers are widely recognizable and indeed, the brilliance of the series lies in Johns' ability to alter the ordinary into a richly worked, complicated surface to create an object of true beauty. Johns was attracted to the mindless, obsessively labor-intensive aspect of the series, which freed him to concentrate on specific units of execution and on the variations of the material, color and touch to create, as Robert Rosenblum described: "loved, handmade transcriptions of unloved, machine-made images" (R. Rosenblum, Art International, September 25, 1960, p. 76).
Deeply influenced by the art and writings of Marcel Duchamp, Johns began collecting Duchamp's art in the 1960s. While there are obvious similarities between Johns' paintings and sculptures of familiar objects and Duchamp's readymades, Johns is deeply committed to visual sensation, surface texture and the exploration of the eye's relation to the mind. Further, the way he reworks imagery and integrates it into his own style of work demonstrates a different approach to appropriation. In Figure 6 Johns plays with the avant-garde's concern with, and resistance to, familiar typography that permeates mass culture. What is real and what is painted, what is art and what is manufactured, what is hidden and what is revealed, are all unanswerable questions Johns demands from the viewer.
In Figure 6, Johns blurs the boundaries of sculpture and painting. More rectangular than three-dimensional, Johns favors flat images and the techniques and processes of painting. The highly worked surface of the canvas is achieved from Sculp-metal, a quick-drying complex mixture of tints, fillers, vinyl resin, aluminum powder, toluol and methyl ethyl ketone that comes ready to use in a can. Johns builds up the material in successive layers to a mass, using the medium straight from the can, applied with either a spatula, brush, palette knife or his fingers. He frequently uses the material like paint, mixing it with fillers to create various consistencies. When he first began the numbers series, Johns deliberately avoided creating each number and did not work on the numbers in sequential order to avoid an implied relationship of moving through a sequence. While he later stumbled upon the idea of a grid of numbers, his initial desire was to focus on each individual number to address basic questions about perception and the nature of representation.