jasper johns target
If you look closely at the Target, you can see the newsprint that he used to collage on the canvas as a bottom layer. The method of wax encaustic allowed him to really build up a tactile surface that reveals the slow and measured process by which the work was made.
This is a time when Abstract Expressionism was the dominant force in the art world. These artists shared the conviction that art is inextricably tied to the artist’s subjective experience. And they made work that could capture the individual essence of the artist through the gestures he or she makes in paint on the canvas. So if you think of it in that kind of context, Johns is pointing in a totally new direction, both in terms of the subject but also in terms of technique.
Johns’ targets ideas suggested by the early flags, but more abstractly. An American flag is always the same while a target can be any number of things – all that unites targets is a common format of concentric circles. A flag is bound to one nations; a target is universal. The colors of the flag are fixed; in the target, they need only be contrasting.
The image of the target emerges in Johns work in 1955, in paintings that incorporate frieze like arrangements of plaster casts taken from parts of the body. Target with Four Faces is one of the serie paintings and drawings of the target image from 1958 to 1961. 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, something that is also suggested by the mechanical action of a rotating compass by which the image of a target is produced.
The very next day American cruise missiles slammed into the headquarters of RTS (Serbian state television and radio) in Belgrade (Beograd), the capital of Serbia – killing 16 journalists and technicians and maiming 16 others. Days later the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade would be hit by American cruise missiles, killing three embassy staff and injuring 20.
Eerily titled Bull’s-Eyes and Body Parts, Cotter’s review touches upon more than a few sensitive issues:
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For Johns the common shooting target is one of the many “things the mind already knows.” Using familiar objects “gives me room to work on other levels,” he has explained. Though the target is closely linked with the acts of looking and aiming, the concentric circles of Johns’s version are obscured and the surface made tactile with encaustic—pigment mixed with beeswax—on collage. Mounted above the target, four plaster casts taken from a single model over a period of several months are arranged in nonsequential order. A hinged wooden lid offers the option of shutting away the small niches that hold these cropped, eyeless faces.
“In 1955, Johns completed two works that stand alongside Flag as his most important early paintings,” writes Professor Isabelle Loring Wallace in our Jasper Johns Phaidon Focus book. “Entitled Target with Four Faces and Target with Plaster Casts they gave rise to several additional pieces in various media, all of them linked via the provocative imagery of the bull’s eye.
“Moreover, like the disassembled body parts in Target with Plaster Casts, he may have felt fragmented by the pressure of being seen, or seen through, in a political environment that encouraged citizens to look closely at neighbours who appeared different from themselves. Building into his creation a mechanism for revelation and concealment, Johns may have been drawn to the idea that art could be used for either purpose.”