Can purely intellectual painting be significant in the history of art? That's the intriguing question posed by the National Gallery of Art's "Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955-1965."
It was during those years that Mr. Johns created four of his most important motifs: the target; what exhibit curator Jeffrey Weiss calls "the device" (for example, a pivoted slat used to scrape paint); the stenciled identification of colors; and the cast or imprint of the body.
With these potent motifs, he radically overthrew previous art conventions. Mr. Johns, who was born in 1930, rejected the sweeping, oversized canvases of the 1940s and 1950s by abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.
Mr. Johns, however, refused to align himself with other groups of artists or to be categorized in any way.
Instead, he created a set of iconic signs he used singly, such as "Target" (1958), or in different combinations, such as "Target With Four Faces" (1955). With them, he sought to create a different kind of art, one dependent on obsessive delving into the history of art, as well as technical virtuosity.
As the exhibit brochure attempts to explain: "The target, a banded image drawn with a compass, is replaced by the compass itself, which is left attached to the canvas, where it is used to inscribe or scrape a circle."
In other words, the compass (in Mr. Johns' case, a slat of wood) becomes the "device" that is rotated to inscribe the circle. The methodology becomes part of the art's overall aesthetic.
This is all well and good if art is viewed as a shuffling of cards or the rearranging of puzzle pieces, as the interactions of these motifs imply.
But art is more than an intellectual exercise, although Mr. Johns' "False Start" (1959) sold for $80 million in October, according to Agence France-Presse.
It's fashionable to ooh-and-aah over his work -- especially that in the exhibition -- but viewers may long for more dollops of emotion and sensuality.
Consider the exhibit's 27 "targets," created from 1955 through 1960. Revealing the artist's technical prowess, they're among his most challenging and ambiguous images.
The group begins with two of his most iconic works, "Target With Plaster Casts" (1955) (encaustic and collage on canvas with painted plaster casts) and "Target With Four Faces" (encaustic on newspaper and cloth over canvas surmounted by four tinted-plaster faces in a wood box with hinged front).
They show his love of paradox -- the two targets are symbolically similar but also radically different -- and demonstrate the artist's effective use of unusual materials. Both targets imply the opposites of aesthetics and physicality, as once the targets are painted, their original use as objects and signs are nullified.
When Mr. Johns painted the exhibit's smaller targets of different materials, sizes and colors (unfortunately, the materials aren't identified in the brochure or catalog), he obviously reveled in what he could paint and draw.
The wall label states that he once asked, "What forms of art making were still viable in an era when conventional practices of art had been thrown into doubt?" These certainly are among them.
The work becomes more quasi-mechanical in 1959 with "Device Circle" (1959), in which he uses a slat of wood as a device to create and scrape areas of circles. An adjacent wall label tells visitors that he began viewing paintings as utilitarian objects in that period. In an interview at the time, according to the label, he said: "A painting should be looked at the same way as we look at a radiator."
He first drew the banded images of targets with compasses, then left the compasses attached to the canvases. The artist also joined these measuring devices to the stenciled names of colors -- red, yellow, blue -- and, later, to imprints of his body.
In 1962, Mr. Johns began using his body as both device and image. In the "Skin" drawings, for example, he applied baby oil to his hands and head -- leaving their impression on mechanical drawing paper and then rubbing it with strokes of charcoal.
The exhibit's second half begins with a series of works dedicated to the poet Hart Crane in which Mr. Johns refers to Mr. Hart's suicide by drowning in "Periscope (Hart Crane)" (1963). In the oversized, long, horizontally formatted paintings such as "According to What" (1964) and the monochromatic "Voice" (1964-1967) -- notice parts of a target in it -- the artist returns to some of his earlier motifs.
These late, dark works culminate in the enormous drawing "Diver" (1962-1963) (charcoal, pastel and watercolor on paper mounted on canvas, two panels), perhaps the best work here. It's large enough to hold the full extension of the body's arms -- perhaps his own -- as they jackknife through the water.
Mr. Johns has always loved water, and he lives and works primarily in Edisto Beach, S.C., his home since 1961. Works connected with water such as "Diver," "Periscope (Hart Crane)" and "Land's End" (1963) hold a passion missing in other works.
It appears that it took him 10 years to work through his intellectualism into something that can be considered more significant.
Exhibit visitors, however, have to make that call.
WHAT: "Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955-1965"
WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, through April 29.