NARRATOR: Jasper Johns made White Target in oil paint and encaustic, a painting medium consisting of melted wax. Encaustic hardens very quickly, so each brush stroke appears on the canvas exactly as Johns placed it. The individual strokes don’t blend into each other. As prominent as they are, there’s a uniformity to them—one that makes the surface very different from the spontaneous brushwork of the Abstract Expressionists. For these artists, who were a generation older than Johns, gesture was a highly personal matter. A dramatic brushstroke was understood to express an equally dramatic feeling. By contrast, Johns’s surface seems cool and somewhat distant.
For Johns, that impersonality was part of the point. He once told the art historian Leo Steinberg that he chose to paint things like flags and targets because they were, quote, “pre-formed, conventional, depersonalized, factual, exterior elements.” He could include them in paintings without them having to mean anything specific—which meant, in a way, that the paintings were abstract. But at the same time, they were very literal. Theoretically, one could play a real game of darts on a Target painting. And Johns’s Flags have stood in for American-ness on many occasions. So are they actual things, or paintings of things? With Johns’s work, the philosophical problems of representation became part of the painting tradition in a way they’d never been before.
This audio guide highlights selected works from the exhibition Signs & Symbols, focusing on the development of American abstraction after World War II.
To use the audio guide at the Museum:
|1.||Audio guide stop for Introduction to Signs & Symbols||COLLECT|
|2.||Audio guide stop for Louise Bourgeois, One and Others, 1955||COLLECT|
|3.||Audio guide stop for Mark Tobey, Universal Field, 1949||COLLECT|
|4.||Audio guide stop for Will Barnet, Male and Female, 1954||COLLECT|
|5.||Audio guide stop for Steve Wheeler, Laughing Boy Rolling, 1946||COLLECT|
|6.||Audio guide stop for Forrest Bess, Drawings, 1957||COLLECT|
|7.||Audio guide stop for Mark Rothko, Agitation of the Archaic, 1944||COLLECT|
|8.||Audio guide stop for Adolph Gottlieb, Vigil, 1948||COLLECT|
|9.||Audio guide stop for Aaron Siskind||COLLECT|
|10.||Audio guide stop for Helen Levitt||COLLECT|
|11.||Audio guide stop for Alexander Calder, The Brass Family, 1929||COLLECT|
|12.||Audio guide stop for Jackson Pollock, Untitled, c. 1939–42||COLLECT|
|13.||Audio guide stop for Richard Pousette-Dart, The Magnificent, 1950–51||COLLECT|
|14.||Audio guide stop for Isamu Noguchi, The Gunas, 1946||COLLECT|
|15.||Audio guide stop for Alfred Jensen, A Perfect Equal Area I, 1960||COLLECT|
|16.||Audio guide stop for Jasper Johns, White Target, 1957||COLLECT|
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