In the summer of 1954, Jasper Johns moved to a loft on Pearl Street, a block away from Robert Rauschenberg, on the New York waterfront near the financial district. Until then, Johns had lived in small apartments and only had the chance to paint in his spare time. The move to Pearl Street afforded him more space to work freely and to devote himself to painting, and to being an artist. Target, 1958 was painted here at this time.
It was in the Pearl Street loft, between 1954 and 1958 that Johns defined the language of his work and set the foundation for one of the most engaging bodies of work created by any twenthieth century artist. Flags, Targets, Numbers and the Alphabet emerged from this period as "images" which would occupy Johns' work throughout his life.
It was also at this time, in January 1958 that Johns had his first one person exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery. Castelli had first seen Johns' work in a seminal exhibition, Artists from the New York School: Second Generation at the Jewish Museum in 1957 where Johns chose to exhibit Green Target, 1955 (The Museum of Modern Art, New York).
Within weeks of the Castelli exhibition, Thomas Hess, editor of Artnews had chosen Johns' painting, Target with Plaster Casts, 1955 (Private Collection, Los Angeles) as the cover of his magazine and Johns instantly became the rising star of the New York art world.
Target, 1958 is one of the earliest examples of this subject in Johns oeuvre. Johns' Target paintings are considered to be among his most beautiful and abstract images. Leo Steinberg described the paintings in the following manner, "the circle-in-a-square arrangement provides a more diverse surface design: the spandrel corners contrast with the circles and draw attention away from the central focal point of the bull's eye. Johns did not use 'ready made' colors for his targets; instead he chose red, yellow, and blue--the primary colors--which from this point are the basic colors of his conceptualized palette" (R. Bernstein, Jasper Johns' Paintings and Sculptures 1954-1974, Ann Arbor 1985, p. 16).
Johns' Target, 1958 is painted with encaustic, a medium that allowed him to quickly overlay brushstrokes while keeping each stroke distinct. The surface becomes dense yet transluscent, allowing for the layers of color and the newsprint collage to push through the surface with beauty and mystery that defies the image and meaning of a target as we know it.