Multifaceted American painter, sculptor, and printmaker Jasper Johns was born in Augusta, Georgia in 1930. Johns was raised by his grandparents after his parents split up. He would start his collegiate career at the University of South Carolina, before leaving school to go to New York City. Although Johns attended an art institute in New York City, Johns is known as “a self-taught artist” (Crichton 1). Johns was exposed to many different artists as he built up his career in New York City, including the likes of Robert Rauschenberg and Marcel Duchamp (see Duchamp page). Rauschenberg’s influence can be seen in many pieces, as the aspiring artists lived in the same building for a significant part of Johns’ early career (Crichton 1).
Similar to Johns’ own life, where he worked with many different influences to create himself, Johns' creations, paintings, sculptures, and prints developed into a well rounded, “ progressive body of work” (Crichton 1) where Johns expressed his different talents and genres. Johns worked within two genres throughout his lifetime: his early work falls into Abstract Expressionism, but he later transitioned into Pop. Abstract Expressionism was an American movement in art that was popular in the 1940s and 1950s (Anfam 1). Although there was not one unifying characteristic of the works of Abstract Expressionists, they all shared the “common sense of moral purpose and alienation from American society” (Anfam 1). In general, Abstract Expressionism embodies a sort of disequilibrium in paintings, achieved through color, structure, forms and other elements of the piece. Some critics refer to this as a "push-and-pull tension" (Bernstein 48). Pop art, on the other hand, was very much about involvement in American society. Pop art was an international movement that took off in the 1950s, and its goal was to appeal to the public. In this sense, Pop art had very little connection to the artist, but was very easily relatable for the public. Johns was a very prominent figure in the pop art movement, defining some of the terms that came to shape the genre, such as “irony and anti-art” (Livingstone 2). Several critics say that Pop art is at the “lower end of a popular-art to fine-art continuum” (Livingstone 1). Johns integrated both types of genres into his works. As a matter of fact, he and his friend and fellow-artist, Robert Rauschenburg, are “credited with inspiring the transition from Abstract Expressionism to Pop art” (Crichton 1). Painting With Two Balls, as one of Johns’ earlier works, falls largely into the Abstract Expressionism genre.
Painting With Two Balls has several different interpretations, which is characteristic of Johns’ work, since he he was focused on “one’s visual expreience of” the art work, which emphasized individual interpretation (Barnes 28). Made of “three stacked panels [that] are joined together by four metal strips, each of which has four openings for screws,” the painting shows the detail that Johns strived for in all of his work (Yau 36). His meticulous handiwork continued, as he “used two strips, one at either end, to abut each section to the one adjoining it…[and] two paint-smeared wooden balls are squeezed into the gap between the top and middle panels, seemingly causing them to open like the slit of an eye” (Yau 36).
“Johns stenciled the title and his name, and wrote ‘1960’, the year he executed the work” (Yau 36) in order to display his ability to put meaning into every area of his art. Like shading an area in and then erasing the desired letters, Johns collaged the outside of the stencil to create “negative shapes” (Yau 36). Johns uses the relationship between positive and negative space to create additional questions (Yau 36). A connection between the two spaces is made, where two things are dependent on each other. The balls are central to the interpretation of the piece. One idea is that the balls lend themselves to Abstract Expressionism by creating tension within the painting, and by proving “to be as legitimate a means of expressing creative presence as Abstract Expressionist nerve, or ‘balliness’ [sic]” (Welish 51). Another interpretation is that this piece actually is a response to criticism, and one of the few times that Johns’ emotions leak through to his work. Critics speculate that perhaps the use of “Balls” in the title is “meant to be an ironic, even sarcastic, pun referring to the ‘masculine Mystique’ that a good painting had to have ‘balls’” (Bernstein 48). Johns could also have been responding to a critic who claimed that Johns’ works “had no balls” (Rose 62). If one thing is for sure about Painting With Two Balls, there is no definite interpretation, and as Johns wanted, the meaning is left up to the individual viewer to decide..