The intimately-scaled yet conceptually daring Target is a witty, irreverent embodiment of Jasper Johns’ early work. Created in 1960, the piece illustrates one of the best known symbols of the artist’s career. Along with the flag, the target is arguably Johns’ most important recurring motif. During the crucial period of 1955 to 1961, Johns completed over twenty-five paintings and drawings of the target, including the iconic Target with Four Faces of 1955, now in the Museum of Modern Art. The inherently flat design of the target allowed Johns to straddle the precarious middle ground between representation and abstraction, which critics alternately praised and reviled when the targets were first exhibited. Target illustrates the key principles of Jasper Johns’ early work, with an impudence that recalls Duchamp and a spontaneity that evokes John Cage. The piece depicts a target that Johns has delineated in five concentric circles, precisely rendered in delicate graphite upon a soft white ground. Titled “TARGET 1960,” Johns has signed the piece but invites the viewer to complete the work, leaving a space for the viewer’s name with a blank line. He includes the tools of his trade—a paint brush and three watercolor discs in red, yellow and blue. In what might be seen as a wry commentary on the overblown gestural abstraction of the Abstract Expressionists, Target illustrates the playful and provocative way that Johns reinvigorated the craft of painting for the second half of the twentieth century.
Johns’ early work investigated the nature of painting during a highly-charged era in which the technique and approach of the Abstract Expressionists had given way to a string of second-generation artists who lacked the emotional gravitas of de Kooning and Pollock, leaving the practice of painting itself in a state of upheaval and doubt. The nearly impossible task of painting during this strained era was taken up with seriousness and determination by Johns, who was at that time living in a loft on Pearl Street in Manhattan. He created the first target painting in 1955, Green Target, which was exhibited at the Jewish Museum a few years later, where it was seen by Leo Castelli. Upon visiting Johns’ studio shortly thereafter, Castelli was so impressed by his work that he immediately offered him a solo show at his gallery. He recalled: “I walked into the studio, and there was this attractive, very shy young man, and all these paintings. It was astonishing, a complete body of work. It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen in my life” (L. Castelli, quoted in M. Crichton, Jasper Johns, New York, 1994, p. 36).
Johns, then a 27-year-old struggling artist, became an overnight success as a result of Castelli’s keen eye and legendary acumen. His first exhibition at the Castelli Gallery, Jasper Johns: Paintings, opened on January 20, 1958, where he displayed three years of work that included the now-famous targets and flags. Nearly every painting exhibited sold to a roster of important and influential collectors, including Alfred H. Barr, the renowned director of the Museum of Modern Art, who purchased three works for the museum’s collection.
A year later, Johns was introduced to the artist Marcel Duchamp via the critic Nicolas Calas, who brought Duchamp to Johns’ studio. Duchamp’s radical dismantling of the traditional hierarchies of early 20th century art certainly influenced Johns, especially during this early, crucial moment of his career. Both artists included ready-made elements in their work and explored the complex interrelationship between representation and perception, along with the interplay of image and text. Sealed within a hinged frame, complete with the working tools of the artist’s trade, the highly conceptual Target certainly evokes Duchamp’s best work, especially the highly-influential The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), which Johns would have seen in 1953 during a visit to Philadelphia. Some years later, Johns collaborated with Merce Cunningham to produce Walkaround Time in an ode to Duchamp that replicates elements of The Large Glass.
By its very nature, Johns’ Target exists in a perpetual state of unfinishedness, since the completion of the work—coloring in the target’s five concentric circles—would ultimately deface the work and ruin its pristine condition. Such a sardonic interpretation might provide an allegorical understanding of the relationship between the viewer and the art object, which Johns was exploring at this time. His use of a target as the subject for this highly conceptual piece only reiterates this fact. By its very nature, a target is simply a visual aid, a brightly-colored image that provides a sort of “focused distraction” for the viewer to concentrate upon when shooting something: “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” (M. Crichton, ibid., p. 31). By depicting an unfinished, “blank” target, Johns hints at the act of viewing itself and calls into question the relationship of the artist and his audience, not unlike the highly experimental 4’33” that John Cage composed in 1952, which consisted of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of absolute silence.
Target illustrates the fundamental concepts that captivated the artist during this groundbreaking era. Its inclusion in the Collection of Ileana Sonnabend and the Estate of Nina Castelli Sundell speaks to the judicious selection of its owners and the dynamism of the work itself: “The target is a test, and Johns took it with a sort of deadpan irony to test what one expects a work of art to do” (R. Hughes, The Shock of the New, New York, 1991, p. 337).