Morgan Meis in The Easel:
To grasp the excitement (positive and negative) produced by Jasper Johns’s flag and target paintings of the mid- to late 1950s, you have to consider the situation of American painting at the time. That means thinking about Abstract Expressionism. In the mid-1950s, Barnett Newman was still making his zips. Willem de Kooning was churning out shake-and-bake canvases filled with his signature dancing shapes and colours. Jackson Pollock, alas, was dead by 1956, but his all-over-the-canvas drip paintings had become standard-bearers for what ‘serious painting’ should look like. The Ab Exers more or less held sway.
They held sway partly because they were producing visually stunning work, and partly because they were able to express, in both words and paint, a powerful sense of artistic urgency. Abstract Expressionists were given to asking big questions like: what does painting do? Is painting about itself? Should painting reproduce what we see in the world, or does it, rather, ‘express’ something in the mind or soul of the painter? Does painting reach beyond the visual into the fundamental building blocks of reality, be those mental, physical, or spiritual?
Painting in America in 1955 was, in short, a heady affair. To be a painter was to have accepted a kind of ideological calling. In 1943, Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman wrote a short manifesto in the form of a letter to the art editor of the New York Times in which they claimed: ‘to us art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take the risks.’ They also wrote: ‘It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way not his way.’1 Rothko, Gottlieb and Newman wanted serious painting to fly in the face of everyday perception. Standing in front of one of Newman’s imposing zips, one is inclined to feel that the painting hovers at the very edge of what the mind can grasp.