jasper johns target with four faces
The target also focuses attention on the theme of viewing. the contrasting circles of the target are meant to aid distant vision; the target is something to see clearly, to aim at. This makes the target a true visual display – it has no other purpose, no other reason for existence.
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.
Johns, who was born today, 15 May, in 1930, was an early pop-art pioneer, and understood how signs used in everyday visual communication could be combined effectively with more painterly techniques.
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.
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 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.
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.
Johns was really interested in trying to imagine a new set of possibilities for painting, and did so by playing with the subject matter, by creating paintings that at first glance, don’t look any different than the actual objects that they represent.
Beyond the material surface of the work, the concentric circles of the target imply the acts of seeing and taking aim. However, Johns excluded the model’s eyes from the plaster faces, and thus thwarted any exchange of gazes between the viewer and the faces in the work. This forced the viewer to examine the interactions between the painted target and the plaster faces. Viewed through the lens of the Cold War era, the seemingly benign images can imply the targeting of the anonymous masses by global political powers as well as by corporate advertising and the mass media. Conversely, contemporary viewers might read the anonymity of the Internet in the work. Every individual’s interpretation is shaped by his or her own history and knowledge. As part of his continued exploration of how people see the world around them, Johns intentionally chose the vague symbols of the target and a nondescript human face to solicit multiple, varied readings of this elusive work that straddles two historically distinct mediums.
Oil on canvas – Collection of the Artist