Review: Shepard Fairey on Jasper Johns at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Peace Woman © 2013, Shepard Fairey. New York, NY. Photo by Jon Furlong. Courtesy of Shepard Fairey.

Peace Woman © 2013, Shepard Fairey. New York, NY. Photo by Jon Furlong.

On Shepard Fairey on Jasper Johns.

I was made aware of this event that took place on October 14th, 2015 through a friend, and am incredibly glad that she shared it with me. She had no idea when she suggested it how excited I would get. Shepard Fairey, a brilliant and rule-breaking graphic designer, well-known progressive, and street artist famous for his Obey Giant brand, the Obama Hope posters, and the Andre the Giant has a Posse stickers, was going to be talking about my most revered and personally influential artist, Jasper Johns, most famous for his flags,  targets, numbers (all everyday objects and ideas), and his major impact in the Modernist Pop movement that followed and extended Abstract Expressionism.

I had to teach a class at the same time. However, as I thought about it, I decided to reschedule the class, as I found this to be a truly unique possibility: To hear one hero speak about another hero.

On Open Source.

The talk was in the Great Stair Hall of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and I got there especially early. Graciously, the event was free with admission (pay as you wish) and so all were truly welcomed. Upon approaching the venue, there was a table set up for the sponsoring organization, Open Source. Knowing something (ahem) about the topic of open source in software and hardware, I was amazed at the synchronicity of the idea, the art, the speaker, and the topic of the evening. Open Source in Philly is a month long cooperative art project by The City of Philadelphia Mural Arts program. More details here:

“In 2015, the City of Philadelphia will become an Open Source space, including:  An EXHIBITION of 14 new public artworks, created and on display throughout Philadelphia  A CENTRAL VENUE, open for dialogue with staff, participating artists, and the curator, featuring photo and video documentation of the project, plus interactive displays for the public  A variety of TOURS, including docent-led trolley and walking tours between sites, as well as audio guides and maps for self-guided visitors  Months of PROGRAMMING, leading up to and throughout October 2015, including a major launch party, artist and curator Q&As, lectures, talks, film screenings, hands-on workshops for families, and other exciting events co-led with partnering organizations around Philadelphia” found in About — OPEN SOURCE at

On Fairey’s self-denied expertise in Johns.

Fairey opened by talking about his audience being mostly composed of people for whom Art History was not a major topic of study. He did not do this in anything like a disrespectful way, but rather as a way to talk about the way that he hopes that his followers might be introduced in a venn diagrammatic way to the fine arts as well. He said that he was wrongly described as an expert in Jasper Johns, and while I’m sure there are many who know the deepest depths of the theory and application and processes of his work, I’d argue that few know more about the intent of Johns’ work than Fairey. He made this self-evident in the way that he spoke of Johns’ history, reasoning, influence of the art ecosystem, and agency given to artists due to Johns.

On their shared geography.

I was surprised and amazed to find out that Fairey had recently had a cooperative exhibition with Johns in their common home of South Carolina. He also noted that few other well-known contemporary artists came from there, and that Johns’ move to NYC was one particular difference in their trajectories. I loved the way that geography seemed so important to Faireys recognition of their commonality, and made me think of my roots in PA and then NJ, and how that has influenced me.

“”The Insistent Image: Recurrent Motifs in the Art of Shepard Fairey and Jasper Johns” presents Fairey’s latest series of works about the energy industry and the environment, alongside a selection of prints by fellow South Carolina native Jasper Johns. Both artists return again and again to certain symbols and motifs — flags and targets being a theme shared by both artists. Yet the two artists could not be more different in the communication of their message. Where Johns cultivates ambiguity and answers no questions, Fairey’s work is pointed and exclamatory. Both artists have cultivated a personal language of patterns that run through their respective bodies of work.” found in Shepard Fairey Returns to South Carolina Hometown for City-Wide Art Show – Hollywood Reporter at

On the presence of Johns in Fairey’s work.

“Shepard Fairey’s 2010 mural on Houston and Bowery in New York” found in Love 2 Hate Shepard Fairey! | Banksy’s Girlfriend at

Fairey showed a lot of his own work, though I do not remember seeing any of Johns’ work in his slidedeck. He started by showing a series of prints of a tilted American Flag that became a central motif of work about the new state of America, and what the flag represents to others around the globe. He of course was paying homage to Johns’ work using the American flag, but noted that the flag would have been seen differently when Johns did it, before it was a mandated statement of solidarity used via lapel pins. Fairey makes masterful use of symbols and symbology, and this is in fact what I have always loved about Johns’ work as well. Flags, arrows, targets, repetition, numbers, and text are all used in Fairey’s work (according to him, but now obviously so), in homage to Johns.

On the concept of street art in museums.

At the end of his talk there was an odd Q&A where the only questions allowed to be asked had already been asked via Twitter a week before. Points off for this, PMA. I had questions, and the live, present audience should have the opportunity to participate. No one even knows if those people who asked the questions were even in the room. However, one question that was asked was one that I loved the answer to. The question was about how Fairey felt about the transition of Street Art to galleries and museums. Fairey’s answer was right on: The two things are different. Once the art leaves the street, it is no longer street art. The actual street art is still in the street.

Beautifully planned, well executed, and a night I will remember personally for a long time to come.

This content is published under the Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Leave a Reply