The image of the target emerges in Johns’ work in 1955, in paintings that incorporate friezelike arrangements of plaster casts taken from parts of the body. These two early constructions, Target with Plaster Casts and Target with Four Faces, are included in the exhibition, along with many paintings and drawings of the target image from 1958 to 1961. Each of these Target paintings by Johns features a depiction of an actual target that is, for all practical purposes, utterly interchangeable with the real thing. Yet unlike the flag or the number, which are also familiar images from this period of the artist’s career, the flat target is simultaneously representational and abstract (a number or a flag can never be divorced from its status as a familiar sign). This makes the target susceptible to other ambiguities. Targets imply, or are instruments of, seeing across space (and seeing as an act of potential violence). But the optical nature of the concentric bands can also be understood to figure distraction rather than focus, something that is also suggested by the mechanical action of a rotating compass by which the image of a target is produced.
States of visual attention are further conjured by Johns’ monochromatic target paintings (in white, gray, or green); there the bands are barely discernible, thus defeating the conventional role of the target as an object and a sign. Labor is also a factor in the meaning of the work: the sheer number of targets Johns produced during this period and the careful accumulation of graphic marks or brushstrokes (or of bits of paper in works that employ the technique of collage) signify processes of repetition that reflect the passage from fixation to trance.