Motif The Target Naming of Colors The Device Imprint of the Body National Gallery of Art
Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955–1965
Naming of Colors

Stenciling is yet another mechanical procedure; like the appropriation of the target as a readymade image and the inscribed line or scrape of the compass, or “device,” stenciling eliminates pictorial conventions of artistic touch and taste. Transforming words into a kind of object, the stencil also creates a certain estrangement between language and the thing it signifies or means. Indeed, in these paintings a color name is rarely “represented” using the “correct” color. In False Start one sees the word RED painted in the color orange, ORANGE in white, WHITE in red as well as BLUE in yellow and YELLOW in blue. In some areas the color names are partly painted over by brush marks. In Jubilee the color names are executed in black, white, and gray, while in Periscope (Hart Crane) the names are also stenciled backward or superimposed on one another. This enhances the object-nature of the words and renders them almost illegible.

In addition to the stenciled naming of colors, both False Start and Jubilee show Johns pursuing a new kind of brushwork (what he referred to as “brushmarking”) in large allover compositions. According to the artist, this “had to do with the movements of my arm,” a characterization that is far from the vigorous brushwork of much abstract expressionist painting. Throughout this period Johns spoke of his art in strictly empirical terms. His fixation on technical procedures defines the work of art as almost a kind of utilitarian object—as if the function of a painting or drawing were, first and foremost, to describe itself.

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