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.
It’s probably pointless to try and figure out exactly how and why Johns came upon the target anyway. In a recent interview about the current show, he says, “Trying to remember now, I think that I was trying to see something, to see what seeing consisted of, to play with seeing and saying.” Again, Johns shows himself perfectly happy to be a kind of Sybil when it comes to inspiration and intent. Perhaps, like the flag, it all came from a dream and the murky realm of the unconscious. But that is exactly what he was preparing himself for when he destroyed all of his old paintings and went out in search of the new. He was waiting for something from the world to speak to him. The target was one of the things that popped into that empty space that he had made of himself. The important fact is that Johns knew he had to find something new, that he was after a look and a way of seeing.
And the target somehow satisfied that need, partly because it’s so straightforward, so “right there.” The whole purpose of a target is to be aimed at and the first step of aiming is looking, to look right at what is there in front of you. The target is so powerful precisely because there is nothing complicated about it as an object. And it was Johns himself who once said that you should look at a painting the way you look at a radiator. Whatever the explanation, the proof of the aesthetic breakthrough is in the pudding. The targets work. The dead end of Abstract Expressionism as leapt over in an instant.
Johns had found a new way to see in painting. And once he gets going, he’s almost tripping over himself with new insights—figuring out ways to see the target, ways to look at it. Target with Plaster Casts (1955) is a big, simple target popping out of a red background, its complications limited to the peripheries; but move to 1956–1957, and both Target and White Target are already beginning to efface the powerful image, to hide it in various ways. It’s as if Johns is wondering just how untargetlike he can make the target and still retain its essence. By Green Target (1959), it would be difficult to recognize the motif at all if one didn’t already know to look for it. Then, all of a sudden in that same year, the target seems to transform into Device Circle, and by 1962, Device Circle has become simply Device. The target is now, on its own, remaking itself; it has become a machine for its own reproduction.
As is evident in the exhibit, once Johns gets inside the world of his targets, there is much to do there. After the target falls apart into color splotches with, for instance, 1959’s False Start, it begins to get reconstituted into horizontal strips of color or simply names of color, or both, in paintings such as Out the Window (1959 and 1960). By the time of Passage (1962), the “device” has come together with the named colors, and this sets the stage for Diver (1962), in which the target finally comes home in the top left of the picture, where the devices normally sit, with some color-naming across the way on the other side of the canvas, as if his motifs are now in distant conversation.
By 1962, Johns wasn’t so much exploring the aesthetic universe he had discovered with the target, as becoming comfortable in completely inhabiting it. He’s moving around in it with grace and freedom and a healthy dose of play. He’s also, perhaps, beginning to get a little overwhelmed with this world he has created, starting to seek out ways to escape and remake himself again, with works such as No and Untitled (Cut, Tear, Scrape, Erase) (both 1964).
Taken collectively, these works reveal Johns as a kind of latter-day American Transcendentalist. When Emerson employed the term, he meant to express his fascination at the way our perceptions and ideas correspond to the world and vice versa. He was always looking for evidence of this miraculous correspondence, particularly among what we may call the “common” things of the world. In “The American Scholar,” Emerson wrote:
I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provençal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds. What would we really know the meaning of? The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body;—show me the ultimate reason of these matters.
Johns was involved in a version of this same project. What he was seeking, in a sense, were transcendental objects; objects that, when focused on intently enough, reveal something about who we are and what our world is like. Transcendental objects in Emerson’s sense come from the everyday world and are connected to the ordinary. But, at the same time, they are sublime because they reveal to us, sometimes in a flash, the contours and character of the world in which we live and the kinds of lives that we are living in it—in ways we simply hadn’t seen before. The same is true of Johns’s targets. No one knew that the entirety of our visual universe could be reconstructed and re-imagined from such a simple image until Jasper Johns made it happen. By doing so, he made something particular and mundane shine with the universality it always contained.