JOHNS, Jasper
Numbers in Color
1958-59
Encaustic and collage on canvas
170.2 x 125.8 cm (67 x 49 1/2 in)
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY

John Russell, "The Meanings of Modern Art":

"What Johns did in his "Numbers in Color" was to set out the complete sequence from one through zero, eleven times over. The subject was given, and it recurred with an absolute regularity, just as in a passacaglia the bass line recurs unaltered over and over again. The paradox of "Numbers in Color" is that by accepting this fixed and immutable subject, Johns gave himself a freedom of maneuver and an open
ess of expression which were total and unlimited...Johns in "Numbers in Color" gave...pleasure - the delight of seeing paint handled superlatively well - plus something else. He used the alphabet of numerals to redraft the alphabet of feeling. "Numbers in Color" sets out the gamut of human emotion with reference (and herein lies the contribution of Johns) to an ordered schema from which feeling is traditionally excluded. Emotion plays no part in mathematics. Neither love nor hate will make 2 X 2 = 5. Numerals are weightless, incorporeal, independent of time and place, above and beyond individual feeling. They form a closed system to which feeling has no access... "Questions of identity have always preoccupied Johns, and he is perfectly well aware that each of the ten numerals in question has a personality which is clearly defined. "Number One" stands for leadership, in common parlance, and Johns' number one has a broad, upstanding shaft, a sharp downward turn at the top (like the peaked cap of some archetypal field marshall), and a square-built plinth-type base: all stand up for an impregnable solidity. Zero has also its associations and Johns drafts a broad-bellied vacancy, an echoing oval that signals a moment of repose after the clattering activity of numbers 1-9. Himself conspicuous in life for sensitivity toward the identity of others, he gave each intervening numeral its own character: we remember, for instance, the enlarged teardrop which forms the stem of his number 7, and the swan-like curve of his number 2. But he tells us explicitly that the picture is about numbers in color; and as every word counts in a title by Johns, we are warned that the picture is as much about color as it is about numbers. "What Johns does is animate the entire surface of the canvas with an all-over, in-and-out paint structure which has the vitality of Action Painting but is keyed to something outside itself. There are two separate and independent structures here: on the one hand, eleven rows of numerals with their recurrent subliminal crescendo from one to zero, on the other, the continually varied skeins and loops of paint which sometimes menace and sometimes give way to the mathematics of the basic design. Every great painting carries within itself the history of other great paintings; and in "Numbers in Color" we see something of the fugitive and vagabond humors of landscape painting, something of the verticals and horizontals of Mondrian and something of the patient monitoring which we associate with still life. Everything is there, and every kind of statement. Looking at it, we realize all over again that it is not from the unsupported ego that great art is most likely to come."