Jasper Johns is characterised by impermanence. His subjects are transitory or ephemeral: everyday symbols such as flags, letters and numbers, and practical objects such as coat hangers and light bulbs are repeated over and over in Johns’ paintings, sculptures and prints. This unending repetition plays on our memory of these objects. It questions their representational value. For example, while we rely on memory to make sense of symbols (flags, numbers and letters) and objects, they usually have little material status. These things are disposable and forgettable. Using a dry sense of humour, Johns reminds us that ‘what we see and what we remember’ are two entirely different things. His recurring use of these symbols and objects across decades of practice also reminds us that, as we age, our relationship with these symbols shifts – nothing is stable.
The tension between stability and fluidity is also explored by Johns during his time making in the studio. While collaborating with Kenneth Tyler at Gemini G.E.L in 1969, Johns produced an innovative print series of six lead reliefs: Light Bulb, Bread, High School Days, The Critic Smiles, Flag and 0 through 9. An extension of the artist’s inkless embossing Alphabet (1969), the Lead relief series was developed through industrial technologies to generate a thin sheet of lead ‘paper,’ which was then fixed to a moulded backing.
John Yau, author of ‘Light Bulbs and Lead Reliefs’ in Jasper Johns: Seeing with the mind’s eye reflects on the philosophical implications of Johns’ studio processes:
‘Lead, like encaustic, is a malleable material and melts at low temperatures. Both can be applied, shaped, incised, and stamped. They are vulnerable to external pressure as well as heat, and in the case of encaustic, cold. Lead, however, reflects light while encaustic lets it pass through its translucent “skin”. The other essential difference is that encaustic is produced by the body (bees) while lead is poisonous to the body. What the three materials – encaustic, bronze, and lead – have in common is that, being susceptible to heat, they cannot be equated with eternalness.’
This passage reveals the sophistication of Johns’ creative approach and again directs our attention to the contrast of seeing and knowing. Materials that were once ‘alive’ in the studio are now cold, hardened and ‘dead’ on the gallery walls. The transitional quality of these elements become another device ‘for examining the process of perception and the fluidity of meaning’. Appearances are deceiving, and this is most clear in the lead relief Bread. As Yau notes, Johns’ bread is eternally cold to the touch, and will never rot or grow mouldy. The viewer is unknowingly engaged in a test of perception, one that plays with their own memory of the sight and touch of “bread”.
The Lead relief series are an ironic critique of visual culture, a rhetorical proposition to the looming, unanswerable question – how indeed are these objects intended to nourish us if their message is always changing? Johns offers us no easy solution to this dilemma but instead points to a direction where meaning emerges and submerges in the distance.
Assistant Curator, Kenneth E Tyler Collection
 Goldman, Judith, Jasper Johns Prints: 1977 – 1981 (Boston: Thomas Segal Gallery, 1981) 1
 Yau, John, ‘Light Bulbs and Lead Reliefs’ in Jasper Johns: Seeing with the Mind’s Eye (China: San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art and Yale University Press, 2012) 88
 Bernstein, Roberta, ‘Numbers’ in Jasper Johns: Seeing with the Mind’s Eye (China: San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art and Yale University Press, 2012) 55
 Yau, John, ‘Light Bulbs and Lead Reliefs’ in Jasper Johns: Seeing with the Mind’s Eye (China: San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art and Yale University Press, 2012) 82-89
Figure 1: Jasper Johns, Alphabet 1969, lithograph, comp 73.4 (h) x 87.4 cm, sheet irregular 79.0 (h) x 94.6 cm.
National Gallery of Australia © Jasper Johns. 73.886.2
Figure 2: Jasper Johns, Coathanger and spoon; from Fragments – according to what 1971, colour lithograph, 87.2 (h) x 64.6 cm.
National Gallery of Australia © Jasper Johns. 73.883.1
Figure 3: Malcolm Lubliner, The embossing plate for ‘Light bulb; from Lead relief series’ is cleaned by an unidentified staff member at Gemini GEL, Los Angeles, 1969, digital file of black and white photographic print. National Gallery of Australia, Gift of Kenneth Tyler 2002
Figure 4: Jasper Johns, Bread; from Lead relief series 1969 from Lead relief series, cast lead, sheet lead with polystyrene and paint relief, sheet 58.4 (h) x 43.2 cm. National Gallery of Australia © Jasper Johns. 73.1061
Figure 5: Jasper Johns, Flag; from Lead relief series 1969 from Lead relief series, cast lead, sheet lead with polystyrene and paint relief, sheet 43.4 (h) x 58.6 cm. National Gallery of Australia © Jasper Johns. 73.1059