Analysis of Jasper Johns’ According to What

by Jasmine Brooks

According to What piece at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
According to What piece at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

In early November of this year we had a trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Through our guided tour we encountered multiple pieces that I enjoyed but one really stuck with me throughout the entire day. That piece being by Jasper Johns.

What is our obsession with perfection? It burdens us in an ironic way. We believe that if everything in our little world is perfect then we will be happy, but the pain and process that it takes to get to “perfect” is what makes us unhappy. No one captures this irony better than Jasper Johns with his use of colors and shapes in his piece “According to What.” Jasper Johns is an artist who pulled away from Abstract Expressionism and onto emphasizing what cannot be refuted. He would then go on to pave the road for Pop Art and Minimalism. After coming to Philadelphia and seeing Marcel Duchamp’s painting with his readymades, Johns was astounded and inspired. His 1964 piece titled “According to What” contained just that. From the chair with the leg mold to the stencil to the coat hanger clasping onto a spoon. Johns’ piece reinforced his belief that “we all experience the world in fragments.” Although I believe he’s correct, I also think that his piece is saying something that he doesn’t mention. With his elaborate use of artist techniques inspired by Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg.

My interpretation of Johns’ artwork is that he plays on people’s ideas of what perfectection truly is. It is a way of life that people have been striving towards for an unknown amount of time. It’s almost as if we, and I’m saying we because I’ve fallen into the clutches of wanting to be perfect as well, feel that mistakes are what we need to avoid because if we make any, then our ideal vision of perfect is tainted.

In the piece you can see the contemplation in Johns’ mind with the boxes he painted to the far right. There is a mixture of straight boxes without faults and ones with messier lines. To the opposite side are letters that spell out the words “red” “yellow” and “blue”. You can see the progression of fatigue as the letters become more mangled towards the bottom, as if to say “I’m tired of trying to be perfect.” In the middle of the two sides of chaos is a calm column of circles. The color of the first and third make up the color that comes second. The circles follow this pattern all the way down to the last one where the stencil for the circles have been left on intentionally. This whole piece is the battle between mind and body. The mind says “You have to be perfect, spotless, and meticulous,” while the body fights back with the little inconsistencies that aren’t noticeable to the eye at first glance. Johns unapologetically plays with people’s fear of flawless. He shows it in his technique when these “flaws” are found, it leads to introspection and self reflection.

The name “According to What” is a culmination of this journey. According to what are we placing our ideals of perfect? It’s possible Johns doesn’t mention any of this in his explanation of his piece because he wants people to see it and think deeper into why we put so much pressure onto ourselves to reach this untouched standard. It’s okay to not be perfect because as the artwork proves, you can make mistakes and still have an impact.

Jasmine Brooks is a senior at Freire Charter High School and the Multimedia Intern at STAMP. She’s always found art, of any kind, to be cathartic.