Pop Art's Poppa; Long before Warhol's Soup Cans, Jasper Johns Revolutionized Painting with Works That Were Right on Target

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Plagens

In 1953, an intense, taciturn 23-year-old Southerner named Jasper Johns arrived in New York from a draftee's tour of duty in the Army. Johns was an aspiring artist, and at the time all the art hipsters were emulating Jackson Pollock--a.k.a. Jack the Dripper, the man who painted on the floor using a dancing stick to fling pigment--or Willem de Kooning and his hyperbrushy abstractions. What Pollock, de Kooning and others created was called abstract expressionism, or action painting. To Johns, it suddenly looked like a dead end of macho self-indulgence. So in 1954, he destroyed all his own abstract works and headed in a completely new direction.

One of the first things he painted was "Target With Plaster Casts" (1955). It wasn't a picture of a target, but the thing itself, a four-foot-square canvas collaged with newspaper and covered with red, yellow and blue paint. Was it abstract? Sure, in its way. Was it expressionist? Yes, delicately--the touch of the artist's hand on the surface is delicious. It was also representational--of something right off the archery range. But most of all, the painting was revolutionary. "Target" was pop art, and it arrived several years before anyone had seen a series of inert, deadpan paintings of soup cans by a guy named Andy Warhol.

This great piece of art--it's beautiful and stays fresh no matter how many times you look at it--is one of the major works in a concisely magnificent exhibition, "Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955-65," at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., through April 29. The exhibition explores four main motifs in Johns's cool, cerebral rejection of emotional abstraction: targets; a drafting tool; words (primarily "red," "yellow" and "blue") stenciled on to otherwise abstract paintings, and imprints from his own face and hands. …