MoMA Johns Scull-duggery

Jasper Johns, Target with Four Faces, 1955, encaustic on newspaper on canvas, painted plaster & wood, acquired in 1958 by The Museum of Modern Art

In late 2019, just before the world shut down, I wrote a long article about the Museum of Modern Art’s instant embrace of Jasper Johns, from the moment his first show opened at Castelli Gallery in 1958. Over half the works from that show were acquired by The Modern’s curators, trustees, and supporters, both for the museum, and for their private collections. Not on that list: Ethel and Robert Scull. And that has been nagging at me ever since, because something weird happened at MoMA, and I can’t figure it out.

Museum director Alfred Barr arranged for trustee Philip Johnson to buy Flag (1954-55), with the expectation he’d donate it to the museum later on. This averted any potentially difficult political discussions with conservative trustees. It also avoided seeking trustee approval to acquire a work over $1,000. Of the three paintings Alfred Barr acquired directly for MoMA, the first and most important was Target with Four Faces (1955), for which the museum paid $630, a 10% discount from the checklist price. [The other two works were paid for with endowed acquisition funds from two trustees.]

The credit line for Target with Four Faces, acquired in 1958, lists it as a “gift of Mr. & Mrs. Robert C. Scull.” And in my article, I inferred this gift was made when the painting was acquired: the Sculls donated the $630 so that Barr could buy the painting. But that is not what happened.

Soon after the article came out, the artist emailed, pointing me to a note in the catalogue raisonné: “The painting was purchased by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, from the artist’s first solo exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery [in January 1958]. The funds for the purchase were supplied by the Sculls in 1960.” [bold added, because srsly wtf?]

“Purchased, 1958”: Jasper Johns paintings in Recent Acquisitions, Jan.-Apr. 1959, at MoMA

In fact, when Target with Four Faces was first exhibited at MoMA, in a recent acquisitions show in January 1959, it was listed simply as “purchased, 1958.” In Dorothy Miller’s historic Sixteen Americans show, which ran from Dec. 1959 through Feb. 1960, Target with Four Faces is credited to “The Museum of Modern Art.” The Sculls loaned two works to the show—a Johns and a Rauschenberg.

The Targets corner of Jasper Johns’ gallery in Sixteen Americans, Dorothy Miller’s 1959-60 show at MoMA. A trio of Numbers paintings, including one from the Sculls, hangs out of frame to the left.

But somehow, and for some reason, in 1960 the Museum backdated the credit line to let the Sculls be associated with a controversial/groundbreaking acquisition that they actually had nothing to do with. They got permanent naming rights to Target with Four Faces for $630, two years after Barr bought it, and after the painting had been exhibited twice.

And to this day, I can’t figure out how it went down. MoMA was closed for construction when I was researching my article in 2019, and then everything was closed in 2020. Emails to the current curators of the Painting & Sculpture department turned up nothing. The Sculls’ biographer had nothing. The Castelli Archive at the Smithsonian had nothing. It’s possible Alfred Barr’s papers in MoMA’s archive might have some info, but so far, I haven’t been able to get there. Frankly, I’m skeptical.

By 1960 the Sculls were showering Johns with ingratiating attention and acquiring and commissioning as much work from him as they could. They would go on to donate a large Johns Map (1961) to MoMA, starting in 1963. So it’s possible that backdating the credit for Target was a prospective gesture, of Barr cultivating a donor relationship.

But to the extent the credit line implies the Sculls were involved in the Museum’s acquisition of Target with Four Faces from Johns’ 1958 Castelli show, it is misleading, and distorts the painting’s history. It sure fooled me.

In his email Johns said he complained about the label’s distortion at the time, and was ignored.