Signs & Symbols Audio Guide Playlist
This audio guide highlights selected works from the exhibitionSigns & Symbols, focusing on the development of American abstraction after World War II.
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.
- 200 Introduction to Signs & Symbols
- 201 Louise Bourgeois, One and Others, 1955
- 202 Mark Tobey, Universal Field, 1949
- 203 Will Barnet, Male and Female, 1954
- 204 Steve Wheeler, Laughing Boy Rolling, 1946
- 205 Forrest Bess, Drawings, 1957
- 206 Mark Rothko, Agitation of the Archaic, 1944
- 207 Adolph Gottlieb, Vigil, 1948
- 208 Aaron Siskind
- 210 Jackson Pollock, Untitled, c. 1939–42
- 211 Richard Pousette-Dart, The Magnificent, 1950–51
- 212 Isamu Noguchi, The Gunas, 1946
- 213 Alfred Jensen, A Perfect Equal Area I, 1960
- 214 Jasper Johns, White Target, 1957
- 509 Alexander Calder, The Brass Family, 1929