When the contemporary American painter Jasper Johns appropriated the instantly recognizable image of the target in 1955 and made it his own over the following decade, he scored a bull's-eye on behalf of modern art.
Targets – universal symbols of focus and hitting the mark – abound in Johns's work. In paintings in various media, he created traditional targets that seem only to require some hay backing and a three-legged stand to be real; targets with variations and add-ons; and monochrome targets that are almost nontargets.
No doubt Johns was onto something when he chose to develop this attention-getting motif that would help make his name. He had gained the notice of the art world with "White Flag" (1955), now widely regarded as one of the most important pictures in modern art. Many still identify Johns with that motif, which is as familiar as the target.
But a new exhibition of his work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, through April 29, proves that Johns is ia painter of subtlety, complexity, and variety whose approach to art goes beyond the apparent simplicity of the target and flag imagery.
"Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955-1965" explores four themes central to that crucial decade in the development of this pivotal artist: the target, the use of the "device" (a compass or straightedge), the naming of colors in paintings, and the use of the imprint of the artist's own body as an artistic method.
To discern the complexity of Johns's approach requires a closer examination of his work than a mere glance at one of the 23 target paintings in this exhibit. The initial impression of his art is that it's brash, but the reality beneath is more involved. As the art critic Robert Hughes said in his authoritative book, "The Shock of the New," of Johns's use of the target: "[He] wanted to use things so simple and familiar that, as he put it, they left him free to work on other levels."
For example, Johns's use of color is often stark and emphatic. The basic colors red, yellow, and blue predominate – even dominate – in the paintings in this exhibition. But the texture of almost all the target pictures and other compositions is, in fact, a complex building up and modulation of different levels that almost contradict the simplicity of the color scheme. See "Target With Four Faces" (1955), pictured here.
To Johns, color was often an idea to play with. In a number of paintings in this show, he paints words on the canvas, words that, in effect, are colors. In "False Start" (1959), pictured here, the stenciled word "yellow" is painted in blue, the word "blue" is painted in yellow, etc. The effect, for the viewer, is as though painting were challenging prose. Johns would develop this blurring of painting and writing in later canvases, as if to pose some of the following questions: If words are painted, where does painting leave off and prose begin? When does a word become a picture; a picture, a word? Is naming a color sufficient to connote the color?
Thus much of Johns's painting is about the process of painting. His is often a self-conscious, philosophical approach to art. "I think the process involved in the paintings in themselves means as much or more than any reference value that the painting has," Johns observed. Hence the logic of his decision to incorporate the use of the "device," or artistic instrument, into – or rather, onto – the picture. In "Device Circle" (1959), the staightedge that scraped a perfect circle – which enabled the composition to happen – is attached to the canvas, giving the work a three-dimensional aspect. In other types of pictures, Johns would attach other objects to paintings – including forks, brooms, and broken chairs.
Around 1960, he adopted a much more subdued approach for his "body imprint" pictures. These monochromatic compositions reveal a more introspective side of Johns in which he uses his body – hands, face, feet, etc. – to imprint an image. A singular example of this technique is "Painting Bitten by a Man" (1961), in which Johns captures one of the most basic ways in which mankind can make a mark. The picture consists simply of an imprint of Johns's teeth bitten into a resinous surface that retains the image. Surprisingly, the result is eloquent.
Johns's work laid a foundation for much that has ensued in modern art. His target made possible the Warhol soup can and much else in so-called "pop" art.
Here, the traditional aesthetic principle of beauty is beside the point. Johns's images are often about power and statement. Do they capture the mood of modernity? Right on target.