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 Jasper Johns @ MoMA

   
 

Targeting Hidden Meanings!

   

 

  

 

One of the greatest challenges with abstract and non-figurative art is uncovering meanings where at first glance there seem to be none.  In the current exhibit at MoMA, Focus: Jasper Johns, signature motifs such as  flags, targets, numbers, shades of gray, and beautiful crosshatching patterns abound.  The show is large - eighty-seven paintings, drawings and prints - and we were particularly taken by the layers of interpretation offered up by the complex and fascinating Target with Four Faces (1955).

The painting, in encaustic, of a blue and yellow target set in a blushing red background is topped by four orange plaster faces cut off just below the eyes and encased in a hinged wooden box.  Perhaps an allusion to the time Jasper Johns spent in the military in the early 1950s.  There is nothing quite as militaristic as a target; an elemental archetypal image, it also easily lends itself to other poetic metaphors - Love, Cupid's arrow.  Love and War.  The red, yellow, and blue pigments are the primary basis of the color wheel, the building blocks of the painter's vocabulary.  The four faces recall Rushmore in their silent (eyeless) gaze, but also symbolize Love's blindness.  A clever visual pun on sight and blindness - a target implies precision and sight, and a man without eyes cannot, one presumes, be an accurate archer.  But perhaps he is an easy target!  The expressionless faces and flat unmarked target emphasize a certain simplicity and superficiality: if this is emotional depth then a second layer of interpretation - one that implies loneliness and alienation - becomes apparent. 

Like Warhol's Campbell's Soup Can paintings or Lichtenstein's overblown cartoons, Jasper Johns's flags and numbers have become iconic - simple, aesthetically-pleasing images that can be viewed on a surface level, while interpretations of these images can be complex and involve notions of modernism and high-low distinctions.  In Target With Four Faces, meaning accrues as it is peeled away, layer after layer like an interpretative pentimento, and right below the eyes of the man on the far right, if one peers closely enough, one sees the words 'History and Biography' peer out from the newsprint below the layer of Blushing Red encaustic.  

 

See: In Focus: Jasper Johns, MoMA

 

 

 

 

 

       
 

 
       
     

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