Bodies of evidence: Queering disclosure in the art of Jasper Johns

Gavin Butt*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


IN J A N U A RY 1 9 5 8 J A S P E R Johns had his fi rst one-person show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. It was a huge critical and commercial success. By the end of the show, all but two of the works on exhibition had been sold. As early as the fi rst Saturday in the exhibition run, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., then director of collections at the Museum of Modern Art ( MOMA ) in New York, paid a visit to Castelli’s with a view to acquiring some of Johns’s work for the museum. He thought Johns’s art was evidence of a ‘new spirit’ in American painting and, together with his associate Dorothy Miller, he selected four works for purchase: Green Target, White Numbers, Flag, and Target with Four Faces . 1 In the event, only three works were bought by the museum. Flag was referred to the museum’s board of trustees, which decided that it would be an unwise purchase and dropped it for fear of offending patriotic sensibilities. In a roundabout way, however, the painting was still secured for the museum. Barr was able to persuade Philip Johnson, one of the trustees, to purchase it privately. The painting fi nally entered the museum’s collection in 1973 as a gift honouring Barr on his retirement. 2

But Flag was not the only problematic painting that Barr considered for the museum on this visit. Barr also wished to buy Target with Plaster Casts but found it an equally, if not more diffi cult, proposition to consider as an addition to the museum’s collection. Barr was concerned about what the museum trustees might think of one of the painted plaster body parts contained in the row of compartments along the top edge of the painting. As Calvin Tomkins tells it:

Barr really wanted to buy the larger Target with Plaster Casts, but he was nervous about the museum trustees’ reaction to the green-painted plaster cast of a penis in one of the wooden boxes on top. Would it be all right, he asked Castelli, to keep the lid to that particular box closed? Castelli said they would have to ask the artist, who just happened to be in the back room. Johns came out, listened to Barr’s request, and said that it would be all right to keep the lid closed some of the time but not all the time. Barr decided to take Target with Four Faces instead.

What Barr ‘really wanted’, according to Tomkins, was Target with Plaster Casts, but he couldn’t buy it without fi rst agreeing to an important adjustment to its future conditions of exhibition: namely, that the green plaster cast of the penis would have its compartment lid permanently closed. Without such a change, it seems, Barr would not even countenance putting the painting before the museum for consideration (as he felt able to do with Flag, despite his anxieties about its patriotic meaning). Johns’s refusal of Barr’s conditions of purchase, his insistence on the lid to the penis cast being at least sometimes open, would have ensured a degree of mutability to the painting’s appearance that proved unacceptable to Barr. In sticking to this version of his authorial desire, Johns left Barr with no other choice than to purchase the less contentious Target with Four Faces instead.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationGender, Sexuality and Museums
Subtitle of host publicationA Routledge Reader
EditorsAmy K. Levin
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherTaylor & Francis
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781136943645
ISBN (Print)9780415554923
Publication statusPublished - 13 Sept 2010
Externally publishedYes

Cite this