Jasper Johns. Target with Four Faces. 1955 4440

Encaustic on newspaper and cloth over canvas surmounted by four tinted-plaster faces in wood box with hinged front, Overall, with box open, 33 5/8 x 26 x 3" (85.3 x 66 x 7.6 cm); canvas 26 x 26" (66 x 66 cm); box (closed) 3 3/4 x 26 x 3 1/2" (9.5 x 66 x 8.8 cm). Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert C. Scull. © 2023 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Cara Manes: This is Jasper Johns's Target With Four Faces from 1955.

You'll immediately recognize its subject: the alternating bands of color, the concentric circles, even a bull's eye. In fact, Johns described the Target as something that “the mind already knows.”

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.

This is a time when Abstract Expressionism was the dominant force in the art world. These artists shared the conviction that art is inextricably tied to the artist's subjective experience. And they made work that could capture the individual essence of the artist through the gestures he or she makes in paint on the canvas. So if you think of it in that kind of context, Johns is pointing in a totally new direction, both in terms of the subject but also in terms of technique.

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.

The faces were cast over the course of several months. He used a friend and neighbor as a model. The faces are abstracted by their having been cropped at the eyes. They become a kind of banner above the target.

This work, for me, evokes a state of precariousness. When you start to think about the target as an object, that conjures a whole host of associations--of, say, an arrow from a bow shooting at the picture, about to puncture it.

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