- Jasper Johns
- Green Target
- signed and dated 1956 on the reverse
- encaustic and newspaper collage on board
- 9 1/4 by 9 1/4 in. 23.5 by 23.5 cm.
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (LC #6)
Mr. and Mrs. John Jakobson, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above
New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, Jasper Johns, January - February 1958
New York, The Jewish Museum, Jasper Johns, February - April 1964, cat. no. 11
Cambridge, Harvard University Art Museums, Extended loan, April - June 1999
Roberta Bernstein, The Changing Focus of the Eye: Jasper Johns' Paintings and Sculptures, 1954-1974, Ann Arbor, 1985 [revision of 1975 thesis], p. 142 and 150
Susan Brundage, ed., Jasper Johns - 35 Years - Leo Castelli, New York, 1993, illustrated in an installation photograph of the 1958 Castelli exhibition
Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Jasper Johns, A Retrospective, New York, 1996, p. 126
Green Target was completed in early 1956 at Jasper Johns’ studio, below Robert Rauschenberg’s, at 278 Pearl Street, New York. It is one of the earliest Targets he ever made; created at a germinal moment of Johns’ own biography and, indeed, of American twentieth-century art history. This early, rare painting must therefore be seen as one of the prototypes of Johns’ art and creative vision – made at a time when he had not yet exhibited a painting (only a drawing, Flag, 1955, Collection of the artist, at the Poindexter Gallery, New York, 12/19/1955 – 1/4/1956). Targets were an extremely important motif in Johns’ early visual vocabulary. Innovations in other media, such as ‘sculpmetal’, were first experimented with using the Target paradigm. Indeed, a green Target was the first painting he ever exhibited (Green Target, 1955, New York, Museum of Modern Art) at the Jewish Museum in 1957 (Artists of the New York School: Second Generation, 3/10/1957 – 4/28/1957). Leo Castelli had seen that work at the exhibition preview and was impressed. They would meet, by chance, the next day on March 8th, when Castelli went to Rauschenberg’s studio to look at his work. Rauschenberg went to get ice for Castelli from the refrigerator he shared with Johns in Johns’ studio, and, shortly thereafter, the young artist and new art dealer were introduced. Castelli went downstairs and visited Johns’ studio and saw his work, claiming he was immediately ‘thunderstruck’: “It was the experience of a lifetime to see all those flags and targets.” (Castelli in Susan Cheever, “Johns & Castelli, Inc.”, Harpers Bazaar, January 1993, p. 78). Johns was offered a show on the spot (Rauschenberg was not) and, as Castelli says, “My gallery really began with the Johns show in 1958 … That show is the basic fact of my career” (Ibid.) The present work, most likely seen that fateful evening by Castelli, was included in Johns’ first ever solo show, at the Leo Castelli Gallery (Jasper Johns: Paintings, 1/20/1958 – 2/8/1958). All the works sold (the present Green Target is LC #6) except for White Flag (1955) which is still owned by the artist himself. This first solo exhibition would catapult Johns onto the international art stage, and was a huge success both for him and for Castelli. The measure of this success lies in the fact that, on January 25th 1958, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., then Director of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired no less than three paintings from the show for the museum. A fourth would be donated, by Philip Johnson, in Barr’s honor in 1973.
Almost all of Johns’ Target paintings have been single targets of the same five-ringed design centered in a square pictorial field. His choice of ‘subject’ is telling. For Johns, he wanted to work with phenomena that were so familiar, they were invisible. Johns’ art was in contradiction to the emotional outpourings one found in the Abstract Expressionist canon. His Targets also function in other formal ways: as Ben Heller noted as early as 1959, phenomena such as targets “… limit and describe Johns’ space. They require a certain simple rendering if they are to be recognizable – and until now that has been an important element of their presence. By contemplating these objects and not himself, the artist runs counter to the current expressionistic sense of self.” (Ben Heller, “Jasper Johns” in B. H. Friedman, Ed., School of New York: Some Younger Artists, (Evergreen Book 12), New York and London, 1959, p. 30). There was distance, reserve even with Johns’ thoughtful and intellectual approach to painting, and his subject matter needed to be appropriately neutral to afford him the opportunity of making his work as neutral as possible. Johns’ Green Target thus perfectly embodies Marshall McLuhan’s ‘credo of the cool’. Targets, like letters, numbers and flags, are “pre-formed, conventional, de-personalized, factual, exterior elements” (Johns in David Sylvester, Jasper Johns Drawings, London, 1974, p. 7). As a subject, Johns was “… interested in things which suggest things which are rather than in judgments. The most conventional things, the most ordinary things.” (Ibid.) He wanted a clear fact that could not be incorporated into an organizing hierarchy of aesthetic ‘worth’. The ‘subject’ had to be beyond that. By painting a target he depicts a flat object which, like a flag, can be used like the original ‘object’. It is not a representation in the traditional sense but then neither does it attempt to be a facsimile of a target. It is one and the same: at once a painting, a target and a painting of a target. Johns needed a clarity of Image to achieve a clarity of Index: “My idea has always been that in painting the way ideas are conveyed is through the way it looks and I see no way to avoid that.” (Johns in Walter Hopps, “An Interview with Jasper Johns”, ArtForum, Vol. III, no. 6, March 1965, p. 35).
Johns made several Targets. They represented ambiguous, not easily-defined subjects. They were not affiliated to any one nation; colors could change; their function was singular. A target is formally closer to a painting than a flag because it does not symbolize anything specific. The dispersion of concentric rings on the plane is continuous (with a flag it is limiting due to the nature of its design). As Roberta Bernstein notes, “The perfect radial symmetry of the target gives it a sense of evenness and regularity which goes beyond what John Cage called the asymmetrical symmetry of the flag” (Roberta Bernstein, Things the Mind Already Knows: Jasper Johns’ Painting and Sculptures, 1954-1974, Columbia University, Ph.D., 1975, p. 33). Michael Crichton also notes that “The target 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.” (Michael Crichton, Jasper Johns, New York, 1994, p. 31). Johns thus uses the target as a vehicle for looking. “Johns is concerned with creating an object to be looked at, not an object that will reflect outside experiences … Johns’ presence behind this object is completely incidental. This is undoubtedly where his obsession to fill up the canvas’s entire surface, to sweep it with paint, comes from.” (Georges Boudaille, Jasper Johns, New York, 1989, p. 14).
Green Target beautifully displays this luscious ‘sweep of paint’ that Boudaille writes of; manifesting itself here as a ravishing, waxy, smooth surface. Passages of bright green pigment, suspended in wax, are tightly controlled across the surface. Each mark seems to proudly stand up off the support, indicating the weight and tempo of its application, lending subtle variety to the overall surface, yet harmoniously coalescing together to evoke the Target form. Underneath the painted surface one can see little scraps of newspaper collage: their ‘reality’ interrupting the ‘reality’ of the ‘target’ and lending another set of values to the status of this ‘object’. The artist’s choice of medium and adopted technique for these schematic renderings is an ancient one: that of encaustic, a method of painting with liquid wax in which the pigment is dissolved. In this case, Johns has laid down on a board support a collage of newspaper fragments, embedded in wax. This has the same structure as the image which he paints on top of it (concentric circles radiating out of the picture plane). They also glow through the final layer in more translucent areas. Encaustic hardened rapidly and, because the artist could work very quickly, he could see the process of working. Oil dries much slower and additional layers of paint conceal the underlying structure. What results with the encaustic technique was “… a beautiful, translucent surface whose qualities of quiet, controlled structure contrasted strongly with the highly emotional violence of Abstract Expressionist surfaces” (Richard Francis, Jasper Johns, New York and London, 1984, p. 21).
The Target design afforded Johns the opportunity of exploring the compositional, aesthetic, pictorial and conceptual possibilities this ‘found’ design offered him (just as Marcel Duchamp did the same with found objects such as urinals, stools and bicycle wheels). Like Duchamp, Johns simply modifies the ‘subject’: thereby dissolving the traditional distinction between art and everyday object, and, in doing so, simultaneously provoking questions about the nature and use of the object in its conventional role. Nonetheless, any analysis of the painted surface, and the limitations imposed by media, support or technique are, of course, made after the innovations undertaken by the Abstract Expressionists, and Johns would have been cognizant of their impact. Carter Ratcliff notes that Johns’ early works hoped to “… impose linear order on the painterly snarl inherited from de Kooning and company [by bringing] allover patterns to bear: … the symmetry of the target rings … permitted his own, exceedingly elegant brand of Action Painting to survive, but only under the auspices of strict and orderly line.” (Carter Ratcliff, “Jasper Johns and the Meditative Surface” in Exh. Cat., Chicago, Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, Meditative Surface, 1984, p. 5). If one makes a comparison with that of Cy Twombly’s equally searching and intellectual line, one finds two very difficult vehicles transporting two very different messages. Twombly’s tremulous line often invokes the abandon of self or subject in mythology or history; it is loaded with experience and ‘subjective feeling’. Johns, on the other hand, gives us pictorial puzzles or riddles. Ratcliff adds that “The very textures of his paintings echo these contradictions. He is, after all, an icy expressionist, the virtuoso of a detached intensity.” (Ibid., p. 6).
The result, especially in this jewel-like monochromatic version, is a Target serving as a structural organizing principle for the pictorial surface in an ambiguous ground situated between representation and abstraction. “Through eliminating the multiple colors which clearly define the discrete bands of the target, he makes the image more difficult to perceive. The same thing happens in the monochrome Flag paintings, but since the target design is more abstract, it comes even closer to disappearing than the flag” (Bernstein, op. Cit., p. 41). Of course, unlike the early Flags whose shape chimes with that of their source, these circular targets are enclosed within square formats. This provides a more interesting, diverse surface design, with the form generally set into the square field, rather than on it. As Bernstein comments, “There is no sense of distinction between figure-ground elements, because the circles of the target, like the stripes of the flag, are read as the same layer of space.” (Ibid. p. 34).
Even though the present work is not even ten inches square, we become emotionally trapped in it because of the handling of the encaustic and the underlying collage that comes through the translucent layers – another layer of experience, akin to the Combines that Rauschenberg was making at the same time. This technique also goes back to the Synthetic Cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. We become actively involved in the mechanism of the picture’s display. Where Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko enveloped their viewer within the field of a large canvas (the staple of the time in 1956), Johns accomplishes a similar emotional response with a much smaller work. This painterliness and relief is at odds with the subject and its neutrality, yet the surface itself excites, intrigues and captivates. “Johns has always emphasized the painterly nature of his images, and he has availed himself of every conventional technical resource, including textural variations, primers, varnishes, accentuated brushwork and gestural forms … By setting painting and object in such an ambiguous terrain, Johns’ work elicits … deep speculation regarding the nature of painting as a medium of representation and of the object as a representable element. The relations between the distinctive terms of the painterly idiom – motif and representation; space and surface; form and color – become paradoxical and problematic”. (Alberto Curotto, Johns, New York, 1996, pp. 5-6).
Green Target is a wonderful and very rare example of Jasper Johns’ early production. It remains one of the few paintings by the artist left in private hands that served to launch his career, and reputation, which continue to dazzle audiences the world over today.