Jasper Johns (b. 1930)
Jasper Johns (b. 1930)

Gray Numbers

Jasper Johns (b. 1930)
Gray Numbers
signed, inscribed and dated 'J. Johns 59-61 FOR THE TREMAINES' (on the reverse); titled 'GRAY NUMBERS' (on the stretcher)
encaustic on canvas
5 5/8 x 4¼ in. (14.2 x 10.7 cm.)
Painted in 1959-1961.
Emily and Burton Tremaine, Meriden
Their sale; Christie's, New York, 9 November 1988, lot 5
Private collection, Kyoto
Acquavella Galleries, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2007
M. Blondeau and P. Davet, Louise Lawler: The Tremaine Pictures, exh. cat., Geneva, BFAS Blondeau Fine Art Services, 2007, p. 49 (illustrated).
New York, Jewish Museum, Jasper Johns, February-April 1964, p. 28, no. 52 (titled Small Gray Numbers).
Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum, The Tremaine Collection: 20th Century Masters--The Spirit of Modernism, February-April 1984, p. 89 (illustrated in color).


In the jewel-like Gray Numbers, Jasper Johns' encaustic numerals take on rare, delicate beauty. Painted in 1959-61, the work pays tribute to the American collectors Emily and Burton Tremaine, whose early and prolific support of the artist dates from Johns' first solo exhibition at the legendary Castelli Gallery. Beginning in the mid-1940s, the Tremaines quietly assembled over four-hundred works, forming a collection "so museum-worthy that it alone could recount to future generations the better part of the story of 20th century art" (R. Rosenblum, The Tremaine Collection, exh. cat., Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, 1984, p. 14). Intimate in scale and inscribed "To the Tremaines," his numbers emerge in coarse, staccato strokes and pearly encaustic drips. Rendered in Johns' classic stenciled grid, yet set on rare, Lilliputian scale, Gray Numbers recalls John Cage's description of the artist's work, "Looking closely helps, though the paint is applied so sensually there is always the danger of falling in love" (J. Cage, quoted in Jasper Johns, exh. cat., New York, 1964, p. 25).

Gray Numbers hails from Johns' transformative period of the late 1950s, as he began expanding his visual vernacular to the multiple and varied forms of everyday life. As critic Michael Crichton wrote of Johns' signature motif, "Numbers exist only in the imagination. We write them every day, we use them all the time, but they remain stubbornly abstract in a peculiar way. Johns paints his numbers as if they had some inherent concrete reality--and indeed the very act of painting produces a kind of concrete reality" (M. Crichton, Jasper Johns, New York, 1994, p. 32). Numbers became the perfect vehicle for Johns, as their readymade design allowed Johns to focus on the textural, physical surface. Here, he carefully aligns each digit with mechanistic rigidity-- from naught to nine, down and across, staggered progressively by the interval of one digit--yet still manages to craft the most seductive of surfaces, with its pearly drips and scattered gestural marks.

For Johns, the color gray was a singular and unparalleled preoccupation; according to him, "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...The gray encaustic paintings seemed to me to allow the literal qualities of the painting to predominate over any of the others." (J. Johns, quoted in J. Young, "Jasper Johns: An Appraisal," Art International 13, Sept. 1969, p. 51). Rendered in the artist's signature encaustic paint--a mix of dry pigments and molten wax--his grisaille surface ranges from light to dark, warm to cool, stringent to lush.

On such intimate scale, Johns' gridded numbers collide, becoming abstract and object-like in their physicality. According to the artist, "Early on I was very involved with the notion of the painting as an object and tended to attack that idea from different directions." (J. Johns, quoted in C. Vogel, "The Gray Areas of Jasper Johns" New York Times, New York, 3 February, 2008). There seems to be no break between the flat canvas surface and the dimensional rivets and drips that make up its surface. In scale and texture, Gray Numbers recalls his gleaming Sculpmetal works, which incorporated lightbulbs and other small handheld objects, and covered in thick, metallic paint. Though its grisaille, abstracted palette and allover marks bring to mind Jackson Pollock's Greyed Rainbow of 1953, its pocket-sized dimensions and object-like quality recall the early influence of Joseph Cornell, who famously declared, "Tiny is the last refuge of the enormous."

In origin and provenance, Gray Numbers illustrates the essential link between the artist's revelatory style and the forthcoming reign of Pop. The Tremaines, who would become known for their instrumental role in the 1960s movement, were increasingly interested in contemporary painting upon acquiring their first work by Johns, Tango in 1958. It was the last remaining work at Castelli's 1958 sold-out show, which he later described as "the crucial event in my career as an art dealer, and an even more crucial one for art history." (L. Castelli quoted in C. M. Joachimedes, D. Anfam & N. Rosenthal (eds.), American Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture 1913-1993, exh. cat., Martin Gropius Bau, Berlin, 1993, p. 161). Soon after, the couple visited the artist's studio, and over time, acquired the artist's early masterpieces Device Circle, 1959, White Flag, 1955-58, and Three Flags, 1958, which now sit in the National Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art, respectively.

The work holds, as if in amber, the inimitable period of collecting in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the New York art world was an intimate and rarified circle. The finest of which were the Tremaines, who would go on to forge the key relationships between contemporary icons like Warhol and Lichtenstein, among others. The Tremaines recalled, "We made several visits to Andy (Warhol's) studio; we saw Jimmy Dine's and Tom Wesselmann's and James Rosenquist's and Roy Lichtenstein's," Emily Tremaine remembered, "Once or twice we invited these boys to our apartment and in several instances they had not yet met one another. I remember in particular that Rosenquist met Lichtenstein for the first time here" (E. Tremaine quoted in The Tremaine Collection 20th Century Masters, exh. cat., Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, CT, p. 21). According to her biography, the meteoric rise of Pop was "not brought about by dealers or museum. It was brought about by private collectors. And the Tremaines would be the leaders of the pack" (K. Housely, Emily Hall Tremaine: Collector on the Cusp, Meriden, CT, 2001, p. 155).

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