False Start is an explosive picture; it seems to be blowing itself apart in a pyrotechnic display. Brushstrokes are large; color is riotous; composition is not predetermined by a recognizable image. The picture lacks the calm,
dignified repose of Johns' earlier paintings; it appears nervous, risky, unsure of itself. Most striking, False Start does not seem to use color; it is about color.
Johns says he was sitting in the Cedar Tavern, a bar favored by artist of the time, when he saw a racing print titled "False Start"; he took that for the name of his own painting. But many observers sensed a reference to the artist's state of mind, or his feeling while working.
The stenciled labels for colors draw attention, since these are often "wrong" - the word GRAY is painted in red letters on a patch of yellow, and so on. Much critical commentary has been devoted to the contradictions inherent in this mislabeling. The commentary itself is paradoxical; nearly everyone begins by saying the device is uninteresting, and then discusses it at length.
Faced with the painting, critics noted the conflict, or counterpoint, between the color labels and the splashed of color which they do not really identify. But no one really recognized that Johns - an artist who had already set a course toward increasingly abstract treatment of painting ideas - might logically move from images to color, one of the components of images, and that he would deal with color in the same implacably abstract way. To observers at the time, this logical progression was not clear. False Start seemed to represent a major departure from past pictures.
Johns himself saw no radical break. Two years earlier, he had become aware of
certain limitations in my work, and I had the need to overcome those, to break with certain habits I had formed, certain procedures I had used. The flags and targets have colors positioned in a predetermined way. I wanted to find a way to apply color so that the color would be determined by some other method."
Then came False Start.