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Target with Four Faces (1955): Jasper Johns’ Intriguing Work

Target with Four Faces exemplifies Jasper Johns’ exploration of the new possibilities for painting. Playing with subject matter, symbolism and different techniques, Johns was able to create this engaging, unsettling and thought provoking composition. In this article, Singulart discusses Johns’ aims and methods in creating of Target with Four Faces. 

Who is Jasper Johns?

Jasper Johns (born May 15 1930) is an American painter, sculptor and printmaker associated with the postwar movements of abstract expressionism, neo-dada and pop art. Born in Georgia, he grew up in South Carolina, a place he described as barren of artists and artistic activity but where he nevertheless decided he wanted to become an artist at a young age. After 3 semesters at the University of South Carolina, he moved to New York to study at Parsons School of Design in 1949. This too was cut short as he was stationed in Sendai, Japan in 1952 during the Korean War and would remain out there for two years. 

After his return to New York in 1954, he met the artist Robert Rauschenberg and the pair were soon in a long-term relationship. They were also close friends with other avant-garde artists such as Merce Cunningham and John Cage. Johns’ work caught the eye of the gallery owner Leo Castelli when he was visiting Rauschenberg, which led to his first solo show in 1958. It was here where Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, bought four of his works. In 1963, Johns founded the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts in New York with John Cage. He continues to live and work in Sharon, Connecticut to this day. 

Johns art
Jasper Johns

Johns’ work is often labelled as neo-dada and pop art due to his desire to expand the possibilities of painting beyond the canvas and into objecthood. This shift is seen through his use of everyday subject matter, from the American flag to targets and numbers. It was this combination of ambition and his avant-garde painting techniques that led to him being recognized as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. 

What’s happening in Target with Four Faces ?

Jasper Johns’ Target with Four Faces depicts a target painted in a mixture of pigment and beeswax (known as encaustic) on a canvas. The piece is crowned with four miniature plaster casts of the lower half of the same model’s face which were taken over a period of several months, finally being encased in a little wooden box with a hinged lid. 

In Target with Four Faces, Johns successfully combines painting and sculpture, consequently emphasizing the objecthood of the work in reference to Rauschenberg’s combine paintings of the time. It is characteristic of his neo-dada tendencies, which were a response to the increasing abstraction of painting thanks to abstract expressionism. In reaction to the abstract expressionists’ focus on the surface of the canvas, Johns created something that extends beyond the canvas into a different realm between painting and sculpture. 

Jasper Johns
Johns alongside Target with Four Faces

It was also with a Target with Four faces that Johns explored his concern for images of “things the mind already knows” which allowed him “room to work on other levels”.  By appropriating the target and skewing its inherent symbolism, this forces the viewer to examine and deconstruct its aesthetics in order to notice the form of the concentric circles. Unlike some of the other images that Johns worked with at this time, such as numbers and flags, the target tread the line between representation and abstraction more easily. 

Target with Four Faces is full of plausible interpretations and meanings, dependent on a variety of factors. Firstly, the contrast between the target symbolizing a viewpoint and the lack of eyes on the face forces the viewer engage with the relationship between these two contrasting elements, instead of simply focusing on the faces. Secondly, taking into account the historical context of the Cold War era, during which Johns was working, Target with Four Faces can be interpreted as a reference to global politics and the media’s targeting of the anonymous masses. Thirdly, from a more contemporary viewpoint, this can also be applied to the age of the Internet and the anonymity it fosters. Ultimately, this speculation is all just part of Johns’ aim to encourage engagement and to actively look at the subject matter, regardless of its “real” meaning. He intentionally chose the vague and familiar imagery of a target and a human face in order to be able to leave space for the multiple nuances created by each individual encounter. 

Click here to view artworks that are inspired by Jasper Johns’ style