Episode 22: Jasper Johns, Target (1961)
There’s a famous painting that you’ve probably seen before, either because you’ve seen the original, or reproductions of the original, or because you’ve seen one of the endless bits of satire at its expense. It’s by the Surrealist Renee Magritte, you know, the apple in front of the face guy, and it’s a painting of a pretty realistic-looking pipe. Underneath, in cursive, is written, “ceci n’est pas un pipe.” This is not a pipe. And, on the one hand, duh, we kind of knew that already. Of course it’s not an actual pipe. It’s a painting of a pipe. You can’t hold or smoke this pipe. So Magritte’s right, it’s not a pipe, it’s a painting. On the other hand, thanks, jackass. This is why people don’t trust modern artists. All we’re trying to do is play by the rules that you’ve given us, one of the most basic of which is that it’s okay to say that paintings of things are the things, and now you’re delighting in making us feel like morons.
The thing is, though, Magritte’s painting of the pipe, and his subsequent handwritten rejection of that pipe, is actually saying something incredibly profound about the nature of representation on a canvas, albeit kind of obnoxiously. There have been multiple translations of its title, some translated as “the perfidy of images” some as “the treachery of images”, which are both fairly forceful ways of saying the same thing – that images lie. Think about it: art lies to us all the time. We look at a painting of a pipe and describe it with all the properties of a pipe, and judge its artistic merit by how accurately it captures a pipe, when really, it’s a painting of a pipe and not a pipe at all. Just like that landscape isn’t the actual place and that portrait isn’t the actual person. They’re just representations, just facsimiles. And I can’t stress this enough that yeah, we know this. But we also conveniently forget it. And that feels significant.
Artists of the mid-20th century certainly thought so. And they were a new kind of artist: one who not only takes a step back from the world that they’re supposed to be rendering and responding to, but also a step back from the art world to try to understand what it had been evolving into. This was a generation of artists who never knew an art world without Magritte’s pipe, or Marcel Duchamp’s urinal before that, or Papa Cezanne’s apples, which started it all. These artists were born into a world that already saw the canvas as an experimental testing ground, and subsequently found themselves floating in kitchen sink without a rudder. I mean, if you’re an artist in post-WWII America, think about the legacy you’ve inherited, and the art world you’re surrounded by: you have Dada compromising the integrity, and the dignity, of the art object in favor of expanding its conceptual meaning – in short, you live in a world where it’s okay that a urinal has been placed in a museum as a stand-in for a much larger artistic idea.
You have Pop Art blurring the boundaries between art and advertisements, design, newspapers, commerce – in short, high art and pop culture have irrevocably merged. And simultaneously, you have Abstract Expressionism leading the high art charge, eschewing objects and representation altogether, and taking up entire walls of museums with its emotional angst and spiritual exploration, care of superstar artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. The art world, teeming as it was with genius, had no real conceptual center beyond a general consensus that, quite literally, what happens on the canvas stays on the canvas. This is not a pipe. We’re not going to keep pretending that paintings are something they aren't, and we’re not going to give them the opportunity to keep lying to us. The idea that the role of art was to be a perfect illusionistic likeness of a thing, or a person, or a place, and that the conventional Renaissance ideal of art being a window onto the world, basically, well, went out the window. Because no matter how good an artist you are, that painting of a pipe will never be a pipe. And it’s time we shifted our starting point, our expectations of what art is. So if you’re a conceptual neo-Dadaist with abstract Pop art sensibilities like Jasper Johns, where do you even start?
Johns isn’t the magpie art world poser that I’m making him sound like. But like so many mid-century artists who break the mold, he’s just difficult to characterize. He was born in 1930 in Augusta, Georgia, and arrived on the New York art scene in 1954 after a brief stint at the University of South Carolina, the Parson’s School of Design, and Japan during the Korean War. Once in New York, he hooked up, both literally and figuratively, with the abstract artist Robert Rauschenburg, and together, with fellow conceptual artist and composer John Cage, they proceeded to explore and reshape their contemporary art world in light of this newfound starting point of the surface of the canvas, how that image of a pipe wasn’t a pipe. And, they argue, if you, the viewer, think it is a pipe, then take a long hard look at the unconscious expectations you bring to a canvas, how you read symbols and shapes and tell yourself a story about what it all adds up to.
The awareness and even exploitation of this story was Johns’ artistic bread and butter. His goal was, in his words, to “artistically initiate a dialogue through his artwork that was meant to be resolved within the mind of the viewer,” to present a viewer with inert graphic imagery and watch our associations bring it to life. In other words, he is pointing out that objects and ideas are two separate things that we simultaneously, and unconsciously, merge. So what happens when we separate them, or at least recognize that they are separate? If this sounds at all familiar, it’s because we’ve actually seen this before—we’ve looked at what happens when artists separate object and idea. Remember in episode 17 when we looked at Marcel Duchamp and Dada and how it examined what happens when language is divorced from meaning – it becomes nonsense, sounds, childish babbling, the pleasure of the feel of words on your tongue. Johns is a most often described as a neo-Dadaist, because he’s basically doing the same thing, except with images. He takes series of symbols, “things the mind already knows”—targets, flags, maps, letters, numbers – that are so commonplace, they’re overlooked as aesthetic images, but still carry powerful symbolic and conceptual weight every time you look at it – language, landscape, meaning – and waits for us to do the rest.
Take the American flag, for example – the painting series that made him famous. You don't think about the visual pleasure we get from its uniform stars and stripes, or how vibrant red, white, and blue actually look together. But you do get a visual image that carries an incredible amount of meaning, loaded with associations that are subjective and variable – think about how different the American flag is to a WWII vet, or a Vietnam vet, or an American after November 2016. It’s nationalism and it’s imperialism; it’s pride and it’s oppression. And it’s also just stars and stripes. Straightforward, neutral shapes that we learned in kindergarten. And what Johns is saying is that symbols are simultaneously representational and abstract; both conceptual – the idea of nationalism represented by a flag – and inert aesthetic shapes: stars and stripes.
There is, of course, a difference between the language of the Dadaists and the images of Johns, because sometimes a painting of a thing, even when you separate it from its intended function, can still function as the thing itself. Our projection of meaning onto the otherwise static image consequently blurs the boundaries between the art object and the object it’s rendering. What do I mean by this? Well, think about it: a painting of a flag is just that, a painting, and yet you can't say you wouldn't feel uncomfortable if someone set it on fire.
And this brings us to Target. Which is a painting of a target. And since an actual target is just an image of circles on a surface anyway, it begs the question: is this a painting of a target, or actually a target? Johns could add some impish French text declaring that “this is not a target”, meaning that it’s just a painting of one, but to be fair, if we wanted to, we could use it for target practice, which would work a lot better than trying to smoke the Magritte painting. It might get you kicked out of the Art Institute, but this painting of a target would still perform an actual target’s function.
So let’s think about the function of an actual target. What are your initial associations when you see one? Weaponry, aim, zeroing in, an impending act of violence, a bulleye, get the hell out of the way. And yet it’s also a series of concentric circles that could easily be seen as non-representational abstract art, which you really only notice when it's rendered as a painting of a target. And these trippy and elegant circles become more clearly artistic when you stand up close. You can lose yourself in it the same way you can give yourself over to a Pollock – the repetition fixates your eye and suddenly the optical illusion is hypnotizing you into a trance, like the opening credits of the Twilight Zone. And you’d never experience this if you weren’t up close to it, which is something you’d never do with an actual target. And yet here you are, close enough to see the waxen surface, and falling into the rings. The target is neutralized of its potent meaning, and Johns earns his abstract artist stripes.
But is this abstract, really? Something else you notice when you go up close is how built up the surface of the canvas is—Johns’ canvases always feel like they’re constructed more than painted. He was famous for integrating objects and pieces parts into his work, in case you were wondering why his cameo on the Simpsons was pretty much exclusively just him stealing things and saying “yoink!”. But there’s meaning to these layers upon layers. First, you’ll notice fragments of newspaper painted into the surface, which add an interesting Pop Art layer of specificity and politics, like his contemporary Andy Warhol – nothing is more timebound and disposable than a newspaper, which is an interesting addition to something that is supposed to evoke the timelessness of abstract shapes. Furthermore, Johns mixed the paint with encaustic, a thick, wax-like medium that stiffens and preserves the autonomy of every individual brushstroke. So let’s break this down: he suggests the timelessness of abstraction using, as his medium, the ephemera of newspapers. Pure abstraction, as Mondrian taught us, intended to transcend the hand of the artist, and yet Johns is, again, using a medium that makes us privy to every move of his hand, which is something we saw with Jackson Pollock. And now it’s hard not to picture Johns at the helm, navigating the waters of that kitchen sink.
But now that the conceptual neo-Dadaist with abstract Pop art sensibilities thing makes more sense, let’s talk legacy. An important element of Johns’ work, he believed, was that it was a challenge to Abstract Expressionism and its superstars. Both Pop art and Dada were boots on the ground movements that actively minimized the presence of the artist – they are movements that stand aside while pointing out something about society or the art world, and we’re left to ponder the consequences of a urinal in an art museum, or a silkscreened series of electric chairs. They show us ourselves while the artist quietly skulks into the background. Because as cheeky as Magritte’s painting of a pipe was, it still spoke to us directly. It engaged with us and invited us into conversation. Abstract Expressionists, though, use the canvas as a portal into their own psyches, their own angst. Even if we can empathize with it, a Pollock is about Pollock through and through – it’s indexical, meaning that the entire canvas is like one big artist’s signature. Johns, however, used letters, numbers, maps, symbols as a means of lessening art’s reliance on superstars and their angst, and focusing at back on us, on the very nature of shapes and the power they can have in the interpretative minds of the viewers. Maybe we’re not the morons after all. We’re being empowered to provide the story, which is a pretty generous thing to let us do. But if there’s one thing we can say for sure about the art world, it’s that it will have its stars, regardless of the original intention of its artists, and ironically, today you can recognize a Johns from fifty feet away. No target pun intended.
Special thanks to Calvin Fisher, Leigh Manske, and the intrepid museum goers at the Art Institute of Chicago. For more information, past episodes, and all of the images, go to the lonely palette.com, or follow us on Twitter, @lonelypalette, or on Instagram, where I regularly post bonus images from each episode, @thelonelypalette, or like us on facebook, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And remember that ratings and reviews share us with the world, so if you're inclined, please leave on Apple Podcasts.
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