Halsey Institute, Mark Sloan

Director and senior curator Mark Sloan talks in the Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art. (File)

Jasper Johns was born in Augusta, Ga., and grew up in Allendale, Columbia and Sumter, S.C. He is among the most important and influential living artists of the 20th and 21st century. Fifteen of his large-format prints (lithographs and intaglios) will be shown at the Halsey.

Johns, now 84, uses repeated images and patterns: flags, targets, numbers, optical illusions such as the vase/face or the rabbit/duck, harlequins and galaxies. The effect is enigmatic, much more open to interpretation than Shepard Fairey's work, but still a sort of commentary on the way we live and observe the world.

Johns' experience as a child and young man in South Carolina offered him no significant exposure to art, he said in 2008.

"In the place where I was a child, there were no artists and there was no art, so I really didn't know what that meant. I think I thought it meant that I would be in a situation different from the one that I was in."

He moved to New York City in the 1950s and soon met the artist Robert Rauschenberg (they became lovers) and other artists, notably composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham, another gay couple.

Abstract Expressionism was all the rage then, but Johns rejected it, preferring instead to incorporate recognizable symbols, thereby setting the stage for pop art and minimalism. But Johns wasn't really a practitioner of pop art either. Familiar imagery made its way into his pieces, but he wasn't appropriating commercial objects, famous faces or brands as Andy Warhol would do a few years later.

Nevertheless, Johns was interested in a sort of magical transformation whereby the familiar is presented in new contexts that force curious confrontations at once fascinating and a little discomfiting.

Mark Sloan, director of the Halsey Institute and the main force behind the new double exhibition, said he has long admired Johns for these reasons.

"For as long as I've known about him, about the art, he's always been one of those figures I come back to," Sloan said. "His work is so enigmatic, cryptic, yet it rewards your sustained attention. The more you want to know about it, the more you can know about it."

For Sloan, the paintings and prints of this great American master with an encyclopedic eye condense and frame an entire civilization.

"I love how when you think you understand something, it slips away," Sloan said. "I like the fact that the work is confounding."

Johns knew William Halsey and his wife very well, and has donated money to the Halsey Institute twice, Sloan said. When Johns was invited to show some of his prints during the Halsey's 30th anniversary year, Sloan also offered to secure the artist an honorary doctorate from the College of Charleston. Johns politely declined.

"I don't need to listen to people I don't know talk and receive a piece of paper I don't need," he told Sloan.

Johns primarily has produced paintings, prints and sculptures over the course of his distinguished career. The prints are the product of a long-term collaboration with Universal Limited Art Editions.