Mental Floss

Most Expensive Living Artist: Jasper Johns

Andréa Fernandes

On Friday, Jasper Johns celebrated his 79th birthday. Readers Molly and Corrine both requested a post on the renowned American artist who is best known for his works featuring targets, maps, and American flags. Shown above are his famous "False Start" (1959) and "Winter" (1986).

1. As a child, Jasper Johns was shuffled around among relatives in South Carolina. One constant in his life was drawing, which he began to do at the age of 3. Regarding why he always wanted to be an artist, Johns said, ""¦I knew there were such things as artists, and I knew there were none where I lived. So I knew that to be an artist you had to be somewhere else. And I very much wanted to be somewhere else." After graduating valedictorian of his high school class, Johns went on to 3 semesters at the University of South Carolina before finally moving to New York City.

2. Johns, who has remarked, "I don't want my work to be an exposure of my feelings," is a notoriously private artist and rarely grants interviews. As one friend told Vanity Fair, Johns is "terrified he might let slip something personal." When an acquaintance of 30+ years wrote a biography of Johns in 1996, Johns was "amazed" by her interpretations, which he considered both "inaccurate" and "presumptuous." He forbade the publisher reproduced any of his paintings for the book.

3. When private collectors (and hedge fund managers) Anne and Kenneth Griffin bought Johns' "False Start" in 2006, it became the most expensive work by a living artist. They paid $80 million to Dreamworks co-founder David Geffen for the brightly colored work.

4. Johns' works contain several repeating themes: maps, targets, American flags, and the color gray. Some of his works are variations of his other works. Johns has explained, "I like to repeat an image in another medium to observe the play between the two: the image and the medium. In a sense, one does the same thing two ways and can observe differences and sameness—the stress the image takes in different media."

Larger versions of "False Start" and "Winter" are available. Fans should check out the Broad Art Foundation's page on Johns; virtual collections of his work from the Met, the MoMA, the NGA, the Tate, the Matthew Marks Gallery, Gemini, and Art in the Picture; the Johns exhibitions An Allegory of Painting (brochure), States and Variations (brochure), and GRAY; NGA's web feature on his "Perilous Night;" Michael Crichton's catalog/biography on Johns; and the NGA's guide to teaching art since 1950. Current Exhibition:Jasper Johns Prints: Things the Mind Already Knows (Florida: through May 30, 2009) "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with details of current exhibitions, for sources or further reading, or to suggest artists.