target jasper johns
Even as the bombs and missiles rained upon Yugoslavia, President Clinton responded to the April 22, 1999 murders of 13 students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, by saying “We must do more to reach out to our children and teach them to express their anger and resolve their conflicts with words, not weapons.”
Once the aerial bombardment began on March 24th 1999, the crowds dispersed out of fear of being killed or injured – and fifty-five of Yugoslavia’s bridges would ultimately be destroyed by NATO bombs.
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For Johns the common shooting target is one of the many “things the mind already knows.” Using familiar objects “gives me room to work on other levels,” he has explained. Though the target is closely linked with the acts of looking and aiming, the concentric circles of Johns’s version are obscured and the surface made tactile with encaustic—pigment mixed with beeswax—on collage. Mounted above the target, four plaster casts taken from a single model over a period of several months are arranged in nonsequential order. A hinged wooden lid offers the option of shutting away the small niches that hold these cropped, eyeless faces.
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 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.
“In 1955, Johns completed two works that stand alongside Flag as his most important early paintings,” writes Professor Isabelle Loring Wallace in our Jasper Johns Phaidon Focus book. “Entitled Target with Four Faces and Target with Plaster Casts they gave rise to several additional pieces in various media, all of them linked via the provocative imagery of the bull’s eye.
“There may also be a deeply personal meaning to these works, which relates to Johns identity as a closeted gay man from the American South living in the persecutory, anti-communist and homophobic era of Senator Joseph McCarthy” she writes. “Intimately involved with Robert Rauschenberg in the second half of the 1950s, Johns, who let the phrase ‘History and Biography’ show through a layer of encaustic in the upper right-hand panel of Target with Four Faces, may have felt himself a target of considerable hostility.
The image of the target emerges in Johns work in 1955, in paintings that incorporate frieze like arrangements of plaster casts taken from parts of the body. Target with Four Faces is one of the serie paintings and drawings of the target image from 1958 to 1961. Each of these Target paintings by Johns features a depiction of an actual target that is, for all practical purposes, utterly interchangeable with the real thing. Yet unlike the flag or the number, which are also familiar images from this period of the artist’s career, the flat target is simultaneously representational and abstract (a number or a flag can never be divorced from its status as a familiar sign). This makes the target susceptible to other ambiguities. Targets imply, or are instruments of, seeing across space (and seeing as an act of potential violence). But the optical nature of the concentric bands can also be understood to figure distraction rather than focus, something that is also suggested by the mechanical action of a rotating compass by which the image of a target is produced.
The target also focuses attention on the theme of viewing. the contrasting circles of the target are meant to aid distant vision; the target is something to see clearly, to aim at. This makes the target a true visual display – it has no other purpose, no other reason for existence.