Jasper Johns was at the White House Tuesday to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom alongside Warren Buffett, Angela Merkel, Yo-Yo Ma, former president George H.W. Bush and others. The last painter and/or sculptor to receive the medal was Alexander Calder, given posthumously by President Gerald Ford. Presenting the award to John’s, the president remarked:
It has been noted that Jasper Johns’ work, playing off familiar images, have transfixed people around the world. Historians will tell you that he helped usher in the artistic movements that would define the latter half of the 20th century. Many would say he is one of the greatest artists of our time. And yet, of his own efforts he has simply said, “I’m just trying to find a way to make pictures.” Just trying to find a way to make pictures.
Like great artists before him, Jasper Johns pushed the boundaries of what art could be and challenged others to test their own assumptions. He didn’t do it for fame, he didn’t do it for success — although he earned both. As he said, “I assumed that everything would lead to complete failure, but I decided that it didn’t matter — that would be my life.” (Laughter.) We are richer as a society because it was. And Jasper, you’ve turned out fine.
And later: Jasper Johns. Bold and iconic, the work of Jasper Johns has left lasting impressions on countless Americans. With nontraditional materials and methods, he has explored themes of identity, perception, and patriotism. By asking us to reexamine the familiar, his work has sparked the minds of creative thinkers around the world. Jasper Johns’ innovative creations helped shape the pop, minimal and conceptual art movements, and the United States honors him for his profound influence on generations of artists.