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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)


Photo: Nathaniel Willson



Jasper Johns

American, born 1930

Thermometer, 1959, is a mesmerizing piece that takes its title from a thermometer that is positioned between two panels and flanked by stenciled numbers. In a visual game resonant with influences of Marcel Duchamp and Dada, Jasper Johns activates the visual pun of the thermometer by using the number scale to allude to rising temperature while mixing cold and warm colors (blue and red) with neutral splashes of white and yellow. The lively colors and energetic and vigorous brushstrokes feed on each other. The result is an intelligent, thoughtful and intriguing work that combines the gesture associated with abstract expressionism with a self-criticism that can be characterized as proto-pop art.
Oil on canvas with thermometer
51 3/4 x 38 1/2 in. (131.5 x 97.8 cm)
Framed: 53 1/4 x 40 1/4 x 2 in.
Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the museum's 50th year
Provenance: [Leo Castelli, New York]; Purchased from gallery by Virginia and Bagley Wright , Seattle, 12 March, 1960; gift to Seattle Art Museum 1991
Photo: Nathaniel Willson
Not currently on view

The artist (Johns)… paints an extremely thick surface, causing the viewers to forget the numbers, in order to focus on the shimmering modulations of color.

Georges Boudaille, Jasper Johns, 1989

Vertical Orientation of Thermometer

The Thermometer's vertical interruption of the canvas in Johns' Thermometer is a reference to Barnett Newman's zip paintings, which Johns would have seen on display at French and Company's spring 1959 exhibition in New York. The show was notorious because Newman was criticized for being overtly masculine, and an exchange of letters between the artist and the critic Hubert Crehan ensued.

Newman had included the 'zip' or vertical line in his work since the 1940s. It was a means of breaking the color field and bisecting the picture plane, forcing viewers to confront the ambiguity before them and look beyond the work.  The notion of the zip works as both a unifying and a dividing element. In Thermometer, the actual object, encrusted between the panels, works in similar ways. Johns brilliantly uses it as both a divider and as a unifying element.
The Wild, 1950, Barnett Newman
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, Gift of the Kulicke Family, 1139.1969. © 2007 Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. © Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

Incorporating Mechanical Devices

In the mid-1950s, Johns became interested in making art using mechanical implements. His approach brought the act of making the painting to the foreground in a manner quite different from the presumed spontaneity of his abstract expressionist forbearers. Although he did not abandon targets as a subject matter altogether, in works like Device Circle, 1959, the artist began to incorporate mechanical objects in his work, such as a large compass that he attached to the canvas and swung in either direction to scrape paint off the canvas to form circles. 

By 1959, Johns went further and incorporated mechanically functional objects in his work. He also altered the canvas' surface by stenciling numbers and names of colors on it in an effort to separate himself from the creative process but still allude to the component parts of a painting. 
Device Circle, 1959, Jasper Johns
Photo: Becket Logan
Andrew and Denise Saul. Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

The Art of Mechanical Devices

Thermometer, 1959, is a prime example of Jasper Johns' take on abstract expressionism, which he was exposed to in New York in 1949. The painted surface of Thermometer is consistent with other works by Johns from 1959 and 1960 that mark a turning point in his career. The works Johns made at this time departed from the images of flags and targets he created in the mid-1950s and their subdued encaustics. He moved toward a gesture-prone, abstract-expressionist style and a colorful palette that covers the entire painting. At this point in his career, Johns emphasized the incorporation of actual "mechanical devices" and functional objects into his work.


Michael Darling, Former Jon & Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seattle Art Museum, describes Thermometer by Jasper Johns
Michael Darling, Former Jon & Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seattle Art Museum, and Virginia Wright, Seattle art collector, talk about modern art collecting


Exhibition HistoryVancouver, British Columbia, University of British Columbia, Fine Arts Gallery, Art Becomes Reality, Jan. 29 - Feb. 8, 1964.

Portland, Oregon, Portland Art Museum, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. C. Bagley Wright: Twentieth Century American and European Paintings and Sculpture, Nov. 8 - Dec. 6, 1964. Cat. no. 23.

London, England, Whitechapel Art Gallery, Jasper Johns Retrospective, Nov. 25 - Dec. 31, 1964.

Pasadena, California, Pasadena Art Museum, Jasper Johns, Jan. 26 - Feb. 28, 1965.

Washington, D.C., Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Twentieth Century Painting from Collections in the State of Washington, (dates not recorded),1966 (Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Dec. 8, 1966 - Jan. 8, 1967).

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, American Art: Third Quarter Century, Aug. 27-Oct. 14, 1973.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Jasper Johns: A Selected View in Memory of Tony Castelli, Nov. 23, 1988 - Jan. 29, 1989.

Los Angeles, California, Museum of Contemporary Art, Hand-Painted Pop: American Art in Transition, 1955-1962, Nov. 1992 - Mar., 1993 (Chicago, Illinois, Museum of Contemporary Art, Apr. - June 1993; New York, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, July - Oct., 1993).

New York, New York, Museum of Modern Art, Jasper Johns A Retrospective, Sept. 12, 1996 - Jan. 1, 1997.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, The Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection of Modern Art, Mar. 4 - May 5, 1999.

Pullman, Washington, Museum of Art, Washington State University, Art & Context: The '50s and '60s, Sept. 29 - Dec. 15, 2006.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Target Practice: Painting Under Attack 1949-78, June 25 - Sept. 7, 2009. Text by Michael Darling. No cat. no., pp. 42,146, reproduced.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, City of Tomorrow: Jinny Wright and the Art That Shaped a New Seattle, Oct. 23, 2020 - Jan. 18, 2021.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror, co-organized with Whitney Museum of American Art, Sept. 28, 2021 - Feb. 12, 2022.
Published References"Collection of Mr. and Mrs. C. Bagley Wright: Twentieth Century American and European Paintings and Sculpture," Portland, OR: Portland Art Museum, Nov. 8-Dec. 6, 1964, no. 23.

Solomon, Alan R. “Jasper Johns: The Jewish Museum.” New York: The Jewish Museum, 1964. Illustration in catalogue (unpaginated), not exhibited.

Hudson, Andrew. "A 'Freshness of Eye' Wafted in From the West Coast," in The Washington Post, 1966 (date unknown)

Kozloff, Max. “Jasper Johns.” New York: H. N. Abrams, 1968. P. 23, Plate 53.

van der Marck, Jan, "American Art: Third Quarter Century", Seattle Art Museum, 1973, cat. no. 28, illus. p. 30

Sandler, Irving. “American Art of the 1960s.” New York: Harper & Row, 1988. P.53

Rosenthal, Nan. “The Drawings of Jasper Johns.” Washington D.C.: The National Gallery of Art, 1990. P.146 (illustrated).

"Selected Works." Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum, 1991, p. 128

De Salvo, Donna M. “Hand-Painted Pop: American Art in Transition, 1955-62.” Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art; New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1992.

Fairbrother, Trevor. “The Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection.” Seattle: Seattle Art Museum in association with University of Washington Press, 1999. Pp. 14, 15, 21, 28, 29.

Shiff, Richard. “Donald Judd, Safe from Birds” in “Donald Judd.” Nicholas Serota. London: Tate Publishing, 2004. Pp. 28 – 29.

Bruce, Chris and Keith Wells. “Art & Context: The ‘50s and ‘60s.” Pullman, Washington: Museum of Art, 2006. Pp.42-43 (illustrated).

Weiss, Jeffrey et al. “Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting 1955 – 1965.” Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2007. Pp. 226, 237.

Rodeau, James and Douglas Druick. “Jasper Johns: Gray.” Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 2007. P.48.

"Seattle Art Museum: Bridging Cultures." London: Scala Publishers Ltd. for the Seattle Art Museum, 2007, p. 12

Kangas, Matthew, "Relocations: Selected Art Essays and Interviews", 2008, p. 157

Darling, Michael, ed. "Target Practice: Painting Under Attack 1949-78." Seattle: Seattle Art Museum. 2009. Pages 41-44, illustrated page 42.

"Seattle Art Museum Receives Collection of Over 200 Works," ArtForum online (, illus.

Graves, Jen. "The Great Wright Collection Comes to Seattle Art Museum (and the Marvelous Wright Exhibition Space Closes October 14)," on The Stranger Slog, online (, illus.

Upchurch, Michael. "Seattle Art Museum acquires major artworks: The Wright Collection," on the Arts Page of the Seattle Times online (, illus.

Cohen-Solal, Annie, et al. "New York Mid-Century 1945-1965: Art, Architecture, Design, Dance, Theater, Nightlife." New York: The Vendome Press, 2014; reproduced p. 80.

Basualdo, Carlos, et al. Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror. Exh. Cat. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art and Whitney Museum of American Art, 2021; reproduced, cover, p. 110.

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