"The encaustic paintings were done in gray because to me they suggested a different kind of literal quality that was unmoved or unmovable by coloration and thus avoided all the emotional and dramatic quality of color. Black and white is very leading. It tells you what to say or do. The gray encaustic paintings seemed to me to allow the literal qualities of the painting to predominate over any of the others." (Jasper Johns quoted in Young, "Jasper Johns an Appraisal," Art International 13, no.7 September, 1969, p. 51).
Painted at Johns' Pearl Street studio in 1957, Gray Numbers is the first of Johns' gray number paintings. Along with Gray Alphabets (Menil Collection, Houston) and White Numbers (MoMA, New York), it is among the first examples in Johns' work of the artist using the ready-made building blocks of language as the sole subject matter of his art. Johns' revolutionary use of numbers and letters as the subject of his painting was both a significant and logical development from his paintings of targets and flags and a logical consequence of his stated aim of making an art that represents the world, not the individual. "I'm interested in things which suggest the world, rather than suggest the personality," Johns asserted, "I'm interested in things which suggest things which are rather than in judgements" (Johns cited in Francis, Jasper Johns, New York, 1984, p. 21).
Because of their tautological assertion of the mystery of reality through the medium of reality itself, Johns' first number and alphabet paintings were to prove among the most radical and influential of all his work of the 1950s. Gray Numbers was among the works exhibited at Johns' first one man exhibition, at Leo Castelli's gallery in 1958. This groundbreaking exhibition which Leo Castelli later declared to be "the crucial event in my career as an art dealer, and an even more crucial one for art history" announced Johns' arrival on the international art scene and laid the foundations for much of the art of the next few years. (Leo Castelli quoted in M. Lublin, American Galleries in the Twentieth Century: From Stieglitz to Castelli, pp. 157-163, American Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture 1913-1993, ed. C.M. Joachimedes & N. Rosenthal, Exh.Cat., London, 1993, p. 161). At the exhibition every picture except two was sold, and of the two remaining, the artist himself had kept one, and Castelli bought the other. Among the buyers were Alfred H. Barr and Dorothy Miller who bought several works on behalf of the Museum of Modern Art. They also bought a work each for themselves, Barr purchased a small painting and Dorothy Miller bought Gray Numbers.
It is a testament to Dorothy Miller that she should have bought for herself not only one of the most challenging and conceptual works in the show, but also the one that most clearly refuted the tenets of Abstract Expressionism - the movement which she herself had helped to champion. Heralding the direction that Johns' art would later take, Gray Numbers, pointed towards a new objective art that refuted the heavy subjectivity of the then dominant 'action painting' of the New York School. Seeming like a new form of Realist painting, the cold impersonality of Johns' numbers, the self-evident logic of their systematic progression and the negation of any color through the artist's use of gray all appeared to deny the presence of the individual and seemed to present a new and wholly objective view of reality. This is to a degree thwarted by the sensual painterly application of the thick encaustic that Johns uses, a feature of the work that gives the impression that the artist's painterly enjoyment of making it played a strong role in the creation of the work. The content remains far from autobiographical, however. "Intention involves such a small fragment of our consciousness and of our mind and of our life," Johns asserted, "I think a painting should include more experience than simply intended statement. I personally would like to keep the painting in a state of shunning statement, so that one is left with the fact that one can experience individually as one pleases; that is, not to focus the attention in one way, but to leave the situation as a kind of actual thing, so that the experience of it is variable' (Johns quoted in Sylvester, op.cit., 1997, p. 465).
Painting real objects, in this case the independent symbols or cyphers of a strictly logical language, Johns seemed to be beginning a semiotic investigation of reality through painterly exploration. "I like to repeat an image in another medium to observe the play between the two: the image and the medium." Johns recalled, "In a sense one does the same thing two ways and can observe differences and sameness - the stress the image takes in different media." (C. Geelhaar, "Interview with Jasper Johns," Jasper Johns Working Proofs, exh. cat., Kunstmuseum Basel, 1979, p. 39). The "stress" the image came under should, Johns hoped, allow for what he once described as" a new thought for that object". It was Johns' central prerogative to diminish the amount that a viewer could 'read' in his art, remove any clues and feelings that might prompt certain responses from a viewer. In a sense, Johns was denying himself the manipulation of the viewer that lies at the heart of so many artists' works. However there is an element of manipulation even in this: Johns blinds the viewer with letters and words which distract us from the painting as an art object. The numbers are numbers, and unlike the targets are not mere representations.
Gray Numbers was the first of the artist's number paintings to use all the numerals on one canvas. It is also the only one in which the artist has not used a stencil. Johns's use of a stencil removed the numbers further from the world of the viewer and the artist, as Johns chose a typeface that had deliberately little context in itself, indeed this was precisely "what I like about them," he has said, "that they come that way" (Johns, quoted in R. Francis, p. 29). The numbers were a form of readymade writing. In Gray Numbers, however, this is not the case: Johns has instilled his own sense of the ideal number form into the work. As in his paintings of the Flags, Johns has painstakingly created a distant and impersonal picture, rendering his own idea of the ideal, unspecific numeral. The distant, or universal, nature of the subject matter appears to jar with the incredibly painterly effect of the encaustic, which has a great presence on the canvas, a feeling of true substance. However, it is precisely this combination of the artist's palpable efforts in creating the work and the arbitrary nature of the subject matter that highlights Johns' role, and success, in creating a universal painting.
Leo Castelli at the Jasper Johns Exhibition, 4 East 77th Street, New York, January-February 1958, Photograph by Rudy Burckhardt Photo c Estate of Rudy Burckhardt/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Jasper Johns, Numbers, 1957, Sonnabend Collection Photo c Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Jasper Johns, Sketch for Numbers, 1957, Collection of David Whitney c Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Jasper Johns, 0 Through 9, 1961 c Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York