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Sometime in 1955, Jasper Johns decided that he was going to create a new kind of art. He gathered up all of his past paintings and destroyed them. With nothing behind him and nothing before him but a tabula rasa of blank canvas, he proceeded to make a break with the dominant abstract style of the time and to paint something new. But how to abandon abstraction without moving backward into some version of representational painting as it had existed before? That was the rub. He couldn’t go back, he couldn’t stay where he was, and there was no blueprint for what the next step might be.
By some accounts, that next step came to him in a kind of vision. As Johns himself put it, “I dreamt one night that I painted the flag of America. The next day I did it.” A new exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, traces the decade of Johns’s work that followed that revelation—but, interestingly, dispenses with his archetypal flags. Instead, we’re shown his lesser-known paintings of targets and the aesthetic world that the targets created. It is an effective approach, especially because it allows for the observation of an artist over a period of time, working out his own aesthetic syntax. People don’t always think of Johns’s work in that way, probably because it is so easy to become mesmerized by the iconic nature of the flags and how powerfully they affected art. We see those paintings more in terms of the impact they had and less in terms of what was going on for Johns when he was making them—and even less in terms of what was going on inside the paintings themselves.
And Johns himself is of little help. He has been relentlessly skeptical about the relation of art to intention. But whatever the case, whether Johns was a cipher for higher powers or merely channeling something already extant in the zeitgeist, once he started painting his flags and targets he had hold of something so right for the needs of the moment that the decade after the breakthrough is the story of a man trying desperately to keep control of the behemoth he has unleashed, to follow out its implications, to explore its inner logic, and also to escape from its dominating hold. The great virtue of the show at the National Gallery is that it allows us to chart and analyze that course in detail, to see—at a glance and with a short walk through the museum—the tortuous and amazing path of a great artistic breakthrough, rather than grasping at what produced the breakthrough in the first place.