Boxed-In Pop


National Gallery Categorizes Jasper Johns’s Early Work

The man at the National Gallery of Art was dashing to and fro, arms flailing skyward and fingers pointing toward the paintings before him. His words were not quite audible, but whatever it was he was saying to his female companion as he guided her from one room to the next had her enraptured.

Not wanting to interrupt the grandiose performance on a Saturday afternoon—it appeared as though the young man was on a date, although it was difficult to tell—I never found out who the flamboyant man was or why his evident knowledge of artist Jasper Johns ran so deep.

However, his excitement, though intriguing, was not all that contagious. The “Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955–1965” exhibit is interesting enough, following four specific motifs from early in Johns’s career.

Clearly, the excited visitor darting about was far more educated on the American artist’s life and works than a freelance reviewer could ever be, but what I do know about Johns is that like all pop artists, he was interested in making statements with everyday household objects and popular culture.

That bit of basic information led me to wonder, after leaving the museum, how he would have felt about an exhibit that sections off his first decade of work into neat little categories. Or how he might have felt about “the largest group of target paintings ever assembled,” when it is accompanied by a notation letting visitors know of its proud sponsorship by none other than the mega-retailer Target.

Those “target” paintings refer to the exhibit’s first category chronicling the works Johns began in the mid-1950s. His “Target with Four Faces,” the first paintings visitors see, organizes primary colors into neat blue and yellow circles propped against a red background.

Isn’t pop art supposed to be an abstract reaction to, rather than promoter of, mass culture? But I digress on the Target sponsorship.

Moving through the East Wing galleries brings visitors to the American artist’s mechanical “device” paintings, his stenciled naming of colors and body imprints. In these works, Johns used wooden slats and rulers to scrape wet paint, stenciled in the word blue, painted it white, and covered his body with baby oil before rolling on paper and then using charcoal to reveal the markings.

The device paintings are among the display’s 83 works that represent the most iconic paintings, drawings and prints of one of the most influential pioneers of postwar art. The exhibit has already attracted tens of thousands of visitors since it opened in late January.

The display is also the first of what could be many more to come. The National Gallery announced last month that it will acquire 1,700 proofs of Johns’s lithographs, etchings and screen-prints by the end of 2008. At that time, the museum expects to have the nation’s largest repository of the artist’s works, with sketches of flags, targets and other pieces that became Johns’s trademark creations. The first of the proofs to be displayed are included in “States and Variations: Prints by Jasper Johns,” which opened March 11.

“Printmaking is uniquely suited to tracking the evolution of an image’s development through successive proofs,” National Gallery Director Earl A. Powell III said in a statement. “Jasper’s proofs take this process to new heights. While some are of primary interest in the context of the final image, others are beautiful as individual works of art. Johns’ … work is essential to our understanding of the post-1960 revival of interest in print media.”

Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955–1965 through April 29 States and Variations: Prints by Jasper Johns through Oct. 28 National Gallery of Art on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets and Constitution Avenue, NW For more information, please call (202) 737-4215 or visit

About the Author

Heather Mueller is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.