The Most Expensive Jasper Johns Artwork in Auctions

April 12, 2019

Celebrated by Neo-Dadaists, Pop artists, printmakers and the art world at large for the incredible impact his revolutionary artwork had on all of them, Jasper Johns continues to be one of the most important living artists of our time. With a legacy that goes well beyond his Flag, his innovative technique and style have written some of the most significant pages of the history of arts, leaving marks in several movements throughout his ongoing sixty-year career. Praised and disputed at the same time for being so unusual and outstanding, the works of Jasper Johns marked the creative stances of the 1950s, bringing back the glory of the Dada at a time when everything was to be expressed abstractly.

The brave artistic experiments of Jasper Johns were first discovered in 1958, when the prominent art dealer Leo Castelli visited the studio of Robert Rauschenberg, Johns’ lover and immense influence. Impressed by the craft and the simplicity behind the works he saw, Castelli became his dealer and gave way to the artist’s first exhibition at his gallery, where many important people, like Robert Rosenblum, discovered his work. From that moment on, it was clear to everyone that an approach so unique would not get unnoticed. His paintings emphasized the process of creation, his sculptures resulted from spontaneity and curiosity, and his printmaking took the medium to a whole new level, contributing to its evolution in an unprecedented way.

Because the very act of making art was so essential to him, Jasper Johns has changed the way printmaking was perceived and experienced, by incorporating familiar imagery of the everyday into a re-invented craft. His lithographs, screen-prints, etchings and woodblocks were created using materials like brush, pen, pencil, wax, crayons and even plaster, exceeding the medium’s possibilities and extending its creative output. This interest and dedication are exactly what revolutionized this field of art and became the reference point for many artists to come, even today.

As one of the most valuable artists in the world, Jasper Johns and his artworks have been incredibly sought after ever since that first exhibition of his - in fact, the MoMA immediately bought three of the pieces on display for its collection. Furthermore, in 1980 the Whitney Museum of American Art paid $1 million for his 1958 Three Flags, then the highest price ever paid for the work of a living artist. But this record was surpassed by large over the years, finally culminating in 2014, at a Sotheby’s auction in New York. Was is the painting you think it was? Scroll down to find out!

Also, be sure to check out available works by Jasper Johns on our marketplace!


Editors’ Tip: Johns

In one of the most comprehensive publications released about the life and work of Jasper Johns, Johns by Barbara Hess follows the principles of any TASCHEN book and comprises a detailed chronological summary of the life and oeuvre of the legendary artists, covering his cultural and historical importance and approximately 100 illustrations with explanatory captions. Johns is widely considered one of the most important American artists of the 20th century, most notable for his Flags, sculptures, prints and other artworks that deal with other themes, including targets, numbers, letters, and maps, that are also famously recurrent. If you're a fan of this extraordinary creator, this book might just be the right one for you, at a traditionally affordable Taschen price.

Alphabets, 1957

At the now legendary one-man exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1958, Jasper Johns’ glorious entrance to the art world, Robert Rosenblum immediately bought the Alphabets drawing. Inspired by a chart in a book that had a grid arrangement for the alphabet, each letter is like a ready-made, obtained from sheets of printed letters available commercially for making file labels. The letters are then spread out on a vertical rectangular field of a large piece of card stock and filled with dark undertones. Both perfect and imperfect, this Jasper Johns artwork is a meticulous study of the subject, but also technique and materials, leaning on the legacy of Abstract Expressionists while adopting the concepts of Neo-Dada.

Alphabets was sold for $6,802,500 with buyer’s premium at Christie’s New York in 2012. Click here for more auction data!

White Numbers, 1959

Jasper Johns was very interested in ”shapes and the mysterious symbolism”, as described by Rosenblum, After a series of works dedicated to letters, the artist realized he could do the same thing with numbers - thus, the 1959 White Numbers as a bright representative of yet another detailed grid. It is almost sublime, with elements emerging from the surface just enough to be merely recognized. This artwork was done with oil and encaustic, an old painting technique that involves wax and that was almost completely forgotten until Jasper Johns started using it again. White Numbers is like a composition made up of many smaller artworks, each breathtakingly beautiful in its own way.

Christie’s New York sold White Numbers for $7,200,000 with buyer’s premium in 1997. For more details, click here!

Dancers On A Plane, 1981

Amongst the most personally significant masterworks of Jasper Johns, Dancers on a Plane is a seamlessly choreographed vision of line, color, and light. One of three exquisite crosshatch paintings of the same title which the artist painted between 1979 and 1981, it is rendered in a nuanced palette with a delicate interplay of prismatic light and shimmering hue. The series pays tribute to Johns’ lifelong friend, the dancer and radically innovative choreographer Merce Cunningham, and to the artist’s longstanding involvement in Cunningham’s dance troupe as an artistic advisor. At the same time, the quasi-mirrored symmetry of the crosshatched pattern references a Tibetan-Tantric painting of the Buddhist deity Samvara, Lord of the Dance.

The work was sold on May 16th, 2018 at Sotheby's New York during their Contemporary Art Evening Auction for $7,500,000. More data on the work here.

Corpse and Mirror, 1974

Let’s describe what we see: it is a grid of six rectangular blocks with a pattern made up with hatched black lines worked over in white, pink, yellow and blue. And there’s a black “x” in there too. It is a method that Jasper Johns adopted and used between 1972 and 1983. It is generally considered a graphic method of adding depth and volume to an image or conveying the illusion of light in space. According to the artist, he first saw his pattern on a passing car, inspiring him to experiment in this direction. With it, in a way, he forged a new model of painterly abstraction, one that is not strictly geometric or reductive. The Corpse and Mirror painting also inspired the creation of three prints that were loosely based on it in the following years.

Corpse and Mirror achieved $7,600,000 with buyer’s premium at Christie’s New York in 1997. For more on the work, click here!

Gray Numbers, 1957

In 1958, Dorothy C. Miller, the first curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art acquired Gray Numbers and owned it all the way until 2009, when it was sold at an auction. This work too plays with the viewer’s ability to perceive, incorporating “signs” that provided him with a ready-made design that did not require any composition invention. Jasper Johns often called these “found designs”, creating an image so familiar that it was seen but not looked at. With this work and those on the same matter that followed, the artist wanted to create an index of an image, using an elaborate method of heating wax until it becomes liquid, adding gray pigments to it and laboriously applying it to the canvas. The wax encaustic suspends in time with different speed, weight, tempo and movement.

Gray Numbers went for $7,700,000 with buyer’s premium at Sotheby’s New York in 2009. Click here to visit the artwork’s page!

0 Through 9, 1961

In the mid-1950s, Jasper Johns started working with the shades of gray as the color that not only evokes a specific mood, but also requires an intellectual rigor on the artist’s part. Because of his dedication to it, there was an entire exhibition dedicated to his gray artworks - 120 of them in various media. In this particular example of 0 Through 9, Johns superimposed the numbers 0 through 9, so that the individual form of each numeral is overtaken by the larger whole of the image that is created. It shows the artist’s ambition to record as many variations of a predetermined pattern of an image, by making an optical stack that further abstracts the individual signs into a compositional whole.

In 2002, Christie’s New York sold 0 Through 9 for $9,909,500 with buyer’s premium. Visit the artwork’s page here!

0 Through 9, 1961

The 0 Through 9 series did not just involve oil on canvas artworks, as demonstrated in this example of charcoal and pastel on paper from the same year, 1961. But aside from a drawing, there are also three other smaller works on paper, a metal relief, a pastel and a lithograph. Jasper Johns was determined to explore all possibilities and appearances of these numbers and was interested to see how their form and composition changes with every medium, technique, color. Less monochromatic than the gray painting we mentioned earlier, it contains a scribbled black mass on the left side, giving the whole artwork a mysterious note that for a moment distracts us from the emerging contours of the numbers that surround it.

Achieving a whopping $10,928,000 with buyer’s premium, the drawing was sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2004! More on the artwork here.

Two Flags, 1973

Two years after being discharged from the US Army, Jasper Johns created his first Flag in 1954. He was 24 at the time. It is now known that the series of paintings and other works inspired by the red, blue and white came from a dream the artist had, and that same year, his artwork was all over the news. Two Flags was made in 1974, with the right example being oil on canvas and left encaustic on canvas. The two vertically positioned flags were first sold at Sotheby’s in 1989, reaching a whopping $11 million, at the height of the auction market. In 1999, the artwork went to the hands of one Larry Gagosian, who was allegedly buying on behalf of Leonard Reggio, chairman of the Dia Center for the Arts.

Two Flags reached $7,152,000 with buyer’s premium at Christie’s New York in 1999. For more data, click here!

False Start, 1959

If we’re used to Jasper Johns artwork being gray and moody, this painting will definitely take us by surprise. False Start was created in 1959 after the artist saw a racing print with that name while sitting at the popular Cedar Tavern in New York City. It is an explosion of colors, bright and frenetic, among which we can see stenciled labels such as “wrong”, “gray”, “orange”, “red”. The artwork is entirely dedicated to color in this case - there is no subject, just different components that aimed to break the artist’s habits that he saw as ”certain limitations”. ”I wanted to find a way to apply color so that the color would be determined by some other method”, said Johns at the time.

In 1988, at Sotheby’s New York, False Start went for $15,500,000 with buyer’s premium, 210% over its high estimate! Click here for more details.

Flag, 1966

Encaustic and printed paper collage on canvas, Flag from 1966 was bought directly from Jasper Johns, by Michael Crichton, the best-selling writer, in 1974. It was the hottest item of its sale in 2010 because it was a very rare opportunity for buyers to get their hands on a Jasper Johns artwork. The work’s high price was also due to the fact that Mr. Crichton was its only owner up until that point when it finally went to Richard Russell, a dealer in American paintings. Flag marks a time when the artist began painting common, instantly recognizable symbols like flags, targets, numbers and letters as we’ve witnessed - things he didn’t necessarily have to design from scratch. The flag, in particular, exists as sculpt metal, bronze, lithography, drawing and print.

Flag 1966 is Jasper Johns’ second most expensive artwork at auctions, having been sold for $28,642,500 with buyer’s premium at Christie’s New York in 2010! More details here.

Flag, 1983

Finally, we reach the most expensive flags of them all - the 1983 encaustic on silk flag on canvas. It had never appeared at an auction before, as it was acquired by Jasper Johns’ former assistant directly from the artist. With a size of only 29.5 x 44.4 cm, it is surely one of the priciest works of its dimensions. As described in Sotheby’s catalogue, Flag ”reveals a hushed accumulation of gestures—every stroke meets a dead end and a fresh start.” This Jasper Johns artwork was loaned to several important art institutions and has a rich exhibition history, including the Yale University Art Gallery and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The painting is seminal, as it represents both the flag and the painting of the flag, with an alluring texture that emphasises the tension between what we see and what we know.

At Sotheby’s New York in 2014, Flag 1983 became Jasper Johns’ record-selling artwork, at $36,005,000 with buyer’s premium! Click here to find out more.

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