jasper johns target with plaster casts
“In fact, Johns major target pieces – Target with Four Faces and Target with Plaster Casts – encourage an active, physical response, since the spectator can (at least in theory) manipulate these painted objects by raising and lowering their hinged flaps, a movement that in turn conjures the image of an abstracted blinking eye.
Today, a target roundel in a work of fine art might seem fairly unremarkable; yet sixty years ago, in a very different social and political climate, Jasper Johns’ Target paintings were freighted with hidden meanings.
The National Gallery show, organized by the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art, Jeffrey Weiss, has mysteries of its own. It isn’t a survey of the decade 1955-65, but a selection of 90 Johns works from that time organized by visual theme: targets, “devices,” words and the human body. Other motifs at least as important to that phase of his career, like flags, numbers and maps, are nowhere in evidence. Nor can the connective “allegory” proposed by the exhibition title be readily discerned. No matter.
Others have parsed his life. The artist Robert Morris, in a powerful catalog essay, links the themes of targets, flags and maps to Mr. Johns’s stint in the Army from 1951 to 1953. The art historians Kenneth E. Silver and Jonathan Katz have noted the dark, personal turn in his art after he and his lover, Robert Rauschenberg, split up in 1961. Their relationship seems to have shaped the careers of both men. It lives on in an art-world game that pits them against each other in a who’s-greater competition, though they are very different kinds of artists.
Johns worked on this target with a sort of deadpan irony to test what one expects a work of art to do. A painted target automatically negates the use of a real one, and its use is lost. It stops being a sign and becomes an image, where the center is not more important than the other circles that form it.
Targets by Johns, feature a depiction of an actual target that is, for all practical purposes, utterly interchangeable with the real thing. However, unlike the flag or the numbers, which are also familiar images from this period of the artist’s career, the flat target is simultaneously representational and abstract (a number or a flag can never be divorced from its status as a familiar sign). This makes the target susceptible to even more ambiguities.
In the mid-1950s Johns incorporated symbols such as numbers, flags, maps, and targets into his paintings. Here, he transforms the familiar image of a target into a tangible object by building up the surface with wax encaustic. As a result, the concentric circles have become less precise and more tactile. Above the target Johns has added four cropped and eyeless faces, plaster casts taken from a single model over a period of several months. Their sculptural presence reinforces the objectness of the painting, particularly as the faces may be shut away in their niches behind a hinged wooden door.
In 2018–19, MoMA collaborated with Google Arts & Culture Lab on a project using machine learning to identify artworks in installation photos. That project has concluded, and works are now being identified by MoMA staff.
His art is built on such ambiguities. Most of his very early paintings, done in a thick encaustic medium that makes them look molded instead of brushed, feel like sculptures. Many of those done a bit later in oils have three-dimensional objects attached to their surfaces so that, like furniture, they carve out sculptural space.
Each of these Target paintings by Johns features a depiction of an actual target that is, for all practical purposes, utterly interchangeable with the real thing. Yet unlike the flag or the number, which are also familiar images from this period of the artist’s career, the flat target is simultaneously representational and abstract (a number or a flag can never be divorced from its status as a familiar sign). This makes the target susceptible to other ambiguities. Targets imply, or are instruments of, seeing across space (and seeing as an act of potential violence). But the optical nature of the concentric bands can also be understood to figure distraction rather than focus,