Jasper Johns: Not an Easy Target

Posted January 24, 2007 at 6:37pm

The monochromatic gray painting in question is largely unremarkable save for a few faded patches and the crooked circle in the upper left-hand corner that looks like an afterthought — the product of a child attempting to finger paint, perhaps. Toward the top of the canvas hangs a wire to which is attached two metal, stencil-shaped letters: “NO.”

It’s dreary and nihilistic — a piece you might make in the throes of a suicidal bout or after some great disappointment.

Oh, and it’s by Jasper Johns.

Yes, that Jasper Johns — the artist who made national emblems such as the American flag and the U.S. map into the height of chicness and forced us to look at cross-hatching in new ways. And yes, it’s the same guy who took the pedestrian target and elevated it to icon status with the cool stroke of his hand.

But while aspects of that Johns are on display in the National Gallery of Art exhibit “Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955-1965” opening Sunday, the show is anything but a retrospective — and plenty of the famous early Johnses aren’t included among the 84 works on display. That’s because exhibit curator Jeffrey Weiss’ organizing principle is four motifs — the target, the attaching of appendages or “devices” to the canvases, the use of stenciled color words and the direct imprinting of his body on paper — that reflect Johns’ merging of the painterly and the “quasi-mechanical” to create a simultaneously realistic and abstract body of early work — at least that which still exists. In 1954, he famously destroyed everything he’d done up to that point, so the paintings here are drawn from his first decade of extant art.

Don’t be surprised if chunks of the exhibit feel, well, slightly unfamiliar.

“We’ve lost the sense of strangeness” when it comes to the 76-year-old Johns’ work, Weiss said, adding that one of his motivations behind the exhibit was to “restore strangeness” to the public’s conception of Johns’ oeuvre.

Even the most familiar of the four motifs — the target — emerges in slightly unorthodox terms.

Take “Target with Plaster Casts” (1955), which consists of a red, yellow and blue target painting above which Johns has placed a series of wooden boxes with open, hinged lids. Inside each of these cubicles is a painted cast of a different body part, including an ear, a nose, even a penis. The compass-drawn target is further abstracted by the use of collage (newsprint peaks through the paint) and encaustic (a technique frequently used by Johns that mixes pigment with hot wax to produce a thicker, more tactile quality).

But Johns doesn’t stop there. There also are monochromatic targets (some with a chunky bandage quality texture), camouflage-style targets and targets shaded in to appear like an eyeball. A Johns target is like a specter — projecting the extraordinary in the ordinary, the queer in the common. And the targets are so hypnotic it’s almost impossible to get them out of your head — a quality you would expect in the work of a man who once designed window displays for Tiffany’s. Johns taunts the viewer with the superficial simplicity of his targets in “Do it yourself (Target)” (1960), a framed piece of paper on which he has drawn a target image and then attached a paintbrush and three circles of color — red, yellow and blue — from a children’s watercolor box. Go ahead, he seems to be saying, just try and replicate that.

In the late 1950s, Johns takes an implement used to create the target, the long wooden ruler-like arm used to scrape its arcs and circles, and affixes it to the surface of the canvas itself — the “device.” The first of these works, 1959’s “Device Circle,” shows the aforementioned device camouflaged against a canvas that features for the inaugural time distinct clumps of fluid brush strokes — what Johns termed “brushmarking” — and has the title stenciled across the bottom of the canvas. The device is there to remind us of the essential object-ness of the work. Paintings, Johns once asserted, should be looked at the same way you look at a radiator.

That’s not quite possible, but more power to him. As much as you’d like to take him at face value, everything about his work seems to be pointing to some grand irony, a cosmic laugh or sorrow perhaps.

There’s also a wonderful riotous feel to many of the stenciled color word paintings, combined with an element of dada. For instance, in “False Start” (1959), a canvas of often-mislabeled stenciled color words — the word white might be done in red, and red in yellow — is obscured by the field of bright red, white and blue firecracker bursts that is Johns’ brushmarking.

The final motif — the injection of his own body imprints into the pictures by pressing his baby oil-covered parts onto draft paper and then applying charcoal — is one of the most compelling and creepy aspects in the show. The lithograph “Skin with O’Hara Poem” (1963/1965) depicts two handprints in between which Johns has placed prints of his ears and a tortured front-on view of his face. The effect is eery, as if there’s an imprisoned man on the other side of the paper trying to break through.

There’s an easy chronological progression to this exhibit — with one motif flowing into the next, then mixing and reconfiguring in several of the canvases.

“Untitled” (1963), for instance, features a target, Johns’ imprinted arm, the stenciled renderings of the words red, yellow and blue both individually and superimposed on one another, and an éclat of blood-red paint in the upper-left-hand corner. It’s as if this particular work finally has succumbed to the gunshot wound all those pristine target paintings had been tempting. And the arm, which emanates outward from the center of the target, adds a pathetic, helpless air to it, as if the artist himself is drowning under the weight of his symbolic motifs, real or imagined. (For its part, the exhibit attributes the outstretched hand, which appears in numerous pieces, to a reference to the suicide of the gay poet Hart Crane, who drowned himself in the Gulf of Mexico. Several of the works draw their titles from his poems and are dedicated to him.)

The final rooms of the exhibit feature large-scale, three-dimensional works, which sport a hodgepodge of the motifs, but are more evocative of the combines of Robert Rauschenberg, Johns’ lover for most of the period covered in the show. Though Weiss cautions against any chicken and egg interpretations, you can’t help but see aspects of Rauschenberg in works such as “Fool’s House” (1961-1962), which includes a broom, a towel, a stretcher and a cup hanging from a hook — set against a canvas covered in blobby patches of gray, or “Field Painting, 1963-1964” with its wooden stencils of the words red, yellow and blue projecting outward from the canvas and interspersed with found objects such as a discarded coffee tin and a beer can. The couple may have split in 1961, but Rauschenberg’s memory appears to have left its mark.

“Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955-1965” runs from Jan. 28 to April 29 at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building. At 2 p.m. Feb. 11, curator Jeffrey Weiss will give a lecture there on Johns’ work. For more information on exhibit-related activities, go to www.nga.gov.