Royal Academy - 23 September — 10 December 2017
Jasper Johns has occupied a central position in American contemporary art since the 1950s, yet, at least in this country, we don’t get to see his work very often. The exhibition at the Royal Academy is the first comprehensive survey of the artist’s work to be held in the UK in 40 years: 150 works including paintings, collages, sculpture, drawings and prints, spanning six decades, from the 1950s up to the present time. Artworks are brought together from international private and public collections, and arranged thematically, although there is also a chronological thread, so that we find his early works mainly in the rooms to the right of the entrance, and his most recent in the rooms to the left.
The first painting we see upon entering, is Flag 1958, which pretty much sets the tone of the exhibition. This is the American flag, yet it isn’t. What are we to read in it? A political statement? Patriotism? A satire? Flags are a recurring theme in John’s work, they appear in different colours, different textures, and every time they seem to acquire a different meaning. “Things that the mind already knows”, like targets, numbers, maps and light bulbs are also recurrent. Again, in different materials – bronze, encaustic, collage, oil paint, ink on plastic, etc – black, white, grey, orange…
The impression we get from Jasper John’s art, especially in the earlier pieces, is a keen curiosity in transposition. How the meaning of things changes when they are decontextualized, how meaning changes when the same subjects are presented using different materials and colours. This is a deep, but quite controlled research. It’s like a study of something, seen from an emotional, almost scientific, distance. Where is the artist? How does he relate to his research? More simply stated: why? We can stare at one of his flags, and come up with a million different explanations. What we don’t see that easily is the artist’s relationship with it. Johns work is enigmatic, and his well-known reticence does not help.
Language is also one of the best candidates to exemplify decontextualization and ambiguity. It doesn’t surprise that Johns should end up collaborating with Samuel Becket, and the 33 intaglios and five texts of their book Foirades/Fizzles (1976), are all displayed, together with a bound copy.
In the game of transposition, the painting becomes object, and daily objects are encapsulated in the painting: cutlery, coat hangers, ropes, paint brushes, even a couple of brooms. But, also rulers, symbols more of methodical exploration than spontaneity.
Again, where is the artist, in all of this? He prints himself to the paper or canvas. He prints his hands, his whole body, creating a fragmented form. Interesting is the presence or absence of his signature: he seems to prefer not to sign if it means breaking the geometry of the artwork. Later, though, he begins to sign more often, and often by using grey stencils, with a rather military feel. From the 70's, he becomes more open with his concerns about transitory states, changes – often exemplified in abstract cross-hatchings – memory, death. His silhouette appears in every painting of the semi allegorical series Seasons (1985-86), but always in grey. He is still, somewhat, mainly an observer.
There are complex stories and layers of meanings and processes for every artwork, for instance in the series Regrets (2012-14), the manipulation of the original image has become so abstract that it would be impossible to know, unless you were told, that it is based on a photo of the young Lucian Freud. Not many works in the exhibition are accompanied by an explanatory label, so the help of an audio guide may enhance the experience.
The title of the exhibition comes from a statement by Johns in 2006: ‘One hopes for something resembling truth, some sense of life, even of grace, to flicker, at least, in the work.’
First published on the East Finchley Open Artists October Newsletter - Click HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.