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100 Highlights
of the MFAH
Take a tour through some of the most significant objects in the MFAH collections. On these pages, you can browse 100 highlights from collections throughout the institution. Then visit the Museum in person to discover your own favorites.
 
© Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, www.vagarights.com
 
 
JASPER JOHNS
American, born 1930
Ventriloquist
1983
Encaustic on canvas

75 x 50 inches

 
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Museum purchase with funds provided by
the Agnes Cullen Arnold Endowment Fund

Arts of North America
 
ABOUT

When Abstract Expressionism was at its height in the 1950s, Jasper Johns returned to concrete imagery. He painted simple icons: flags, numbers, and targets. In Ventriloquist, Johns arranges such imagery to create a symbolic self-portrait. In the mid-1980s, for the first time in his painting career, Johns launched a series of paintings based on objects that he had collected and images that he had created, pointing to his influences and artistic process. Ventriloquist is the most personal work of this series, one in which Johns drops his habitual reserve.

At first glance, the composition seems realistic, particularly the right half with its shaded nail, meticulously rendered wicker hamper, and detailed bathtub fixtures. However, the left half of the composition plays more freely with illusionism. Images of the eccentric pots of visionary ceramicist George Ohr float unanchored. A whale, based on Barry Moser’s 1979 illustrations of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, is embedded in the lines of the background. A stacked pair of American flags, one of the artist's most famous motifs, bridges the divide. However, rather than rendering them in the familiar red, white, and blue, Johns paints the central flags in their negative opposite tones. Similarly, the black-and-white image in the upper right corner is a careful, but reversed, copy of a Barnett Newman lithograph Johns admires. In Ventriloquist, Johns “speaks” through these works of art and pictorial inversions. Like a ventriloquist projecting his voice through a dummy, he mobilizes an array of objects and images to address his place among the rich abundance of America’s visual culture.