Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955–1965 presents some 80 objects from the first decade of American artist Jasper Johns' (b. 1930) career. Paintings, drawings, and prints have been selected from public and private collections, including the artist's own. Target with Plaster Casts (1955) and Diver (1962) are among the works on view. In fact, the show includes the largest group of target paintings ever assembled.
Over the past 50 years, Jasper Johns has created a rich body of work that has had profound influence on art in the U.S. and Europe. Johns was born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1930 and raised in South Carolina. Of this period in his life, he says, "In the place where I was a child, there were no artists and there was no art, so I really didn't know what that meant. I think I thought it meant that I would be in a situation different than the one that I was in."
After attending the University of South Carolina for three semesters, he moved to New York City at the age of nineteen and briefly attended a commercial art school. After service in the army, including a period in Japan, he returned to New York in 1953, where he flourished as an artist.
Along with his contemporary Robert Rauschenberg, Johns is widely acknowledged as one of the most important American painters of the postwar era and one of the greatest living American painters. He is also regarded as one of the greatest graphic artists of the 20th century, creating important bodies of drawings as well as prints in a variety of media. In 1950s New York, Johns met John Cage and Merce Cunningham, with whom he collaborated, producing sets and props for performances. He is best known for his painting Flag (1954-55), which he painted after having a dream of the American flag.
In 1954, in an attempt to reinvent himself, Johns destroyed all the work he had made up to that point. He wanted to start over as an artist and sought a new direction away from abstract expressionism. In pairs and sequences of paintings and works on paper, Johns reduced art-making to a series of quasi-mechanical procedures. These techniques and their significance were embodied by four related motifs: the target, the "device," the stenciled naming of colors, and the imprint of the body, which appeared alone or together in various combinations and excluded almost all other images, most notably the flag and the number.
Of the four earliest icons (targets, flags, numbers, and maps) that occupy his work, the target is Johns' most abstract image. Representing something anonymous and universal, the familiar target appears in Johns' work until 1961. His first two paintings of the target image, Target with Plaster Casts (1955) and Target with Four Faces (1955), incorporate a row on top of small cubicle-like boxes with hinged drop doors, each containing a plaster cast of a body part.
The concentric circles of the target paintings, a subject with both figurative and abstract implications, hypnotically eludes classification. Even so, it was not the endlessly reproducible reality of mass culture that captured Johns’ imagination, as it later did Pop Art, but rather the artistic act itself. This oeuvre unites conceptual acuity with painterly magic, and skeptical detachment with an intuitive ability to let things happen.
The target as a subject is replaced by the mechanical "device"—a wooden, compass-like instrument attached to the canvas by a pivot on one end and manipulated to scrape through the paint surface in circles and arcs. The first of these works, Device Circle (1959), is affixed with the kind of compass arm that Johns used to create his target images. From Device Circle, Johns produced two simultaneous sequences of work: those that show the artist changing his manner of applying paint (in long strokes of the brush) and introduce the stenciled color names, and those that use or depict the device.
Johns began naming colors with stenciled lettering in the paintings False Start (1959) and Jubilee (1960). In these works, he labeled and mislabeled colors using red, yellow, blue, and orange paint in the former, and black, white, and gray paint in the latter.
Combining themes of sensuality and mortality, Johns began using his own body as an instrument and an image. In works such as Periscope (Hart Crane) (1963), he incorporated the stenciled words RED YELLOW BLUE and a device image that is attached to an imprint of his palm. In this way, the artist compared the device to his own outstretched arm. In the Skin drawings (1962), Johns covered his head and hands with baby oil and left an impression of these body parts on mechanical drafting paper. The images were revealed when he rubbed them with strokes of charcoal. In Arrive/Depart (1963–1964), the composition of red, yellow, blue, and orange paint incorporates several handprints and the imprint of a skull.
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