“One hopes,” said Jasper Johns in 2006, “for something resembling truth, some sense of life, even of grace, to flicker, at least, in the work.” It is hard to imagine a better one-line summary of his life and work. Johns is one of contemporary art’s great animators, igniting his canvases with vitality.
“Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth”, at the Royal Academy in London, is the first major survey of Johns’ work held in Britain for four decades. It includes over 150 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints, from the 1950s to the present day. Although arranged thematically, with early works placed beside more recent ones, it does broadly follow the arc of his career. Motifs like flags, skulls, numbers, handprints and footprints crop up again and again, their meaning evolving over the years.
It paints a complete picture of an artist who, along with his New York contemporary and long-term lover Robert Rauschenberg, helped American art move on from abstract expressionism and towards pop, minimalism and conceptualism. Yet although he inspired these new movements, his own work, a unique amalgam of form and ideas, resisted categorisation.
In the autumn of 1954, Johns destroyed all but four of his paintings, deciding “to stop becoming and to be an artist”. Soon after, he dreamt of painting a large American flag, which he began to work on the next morning. It became a recurring motif in Johns’ early work, appearing in different colour palettes and arrangements. This “Flag” is painted using the ancient technique of encaustic, in which a mixture of hot beeswax and pigments is applied to the canvas, producing a layered, tactile effect. It became Johns’ signature medium.
When “Flag” was first exhibited in New York in 1958, it caused a stir. Was he an unfashionable patriot or an anti-American blasphemer? Johns refused to say, telling “Newsweek” magazine that “I have no ideas about what paintings imply abut the word…[The painter] just paints paintings without conscious reason. I intuitively like to paint flags.” The choice of an iconic symbol as a subject was to have a huge influence on pop art.
Not long after starting work on the “Flag” sequence, Johns began to think about other everyday items and symbols that were, in his words, “seen but not looked at”. Like “Flag”, “Target” is morally ambiguous: is it referring to a fairground game or a firing squad? The target’s resemblance to the human eye adds to the ambiguity. The thin layer of unpainted canvas, the collage of newspapers and thick encaustic paint remind the viewer that this is an object, not merely an image.
“Painting with Two Balls” (1960)
For a decade after the second world war, the New York art world was dominated by abstract expressionism, the first American movement to achieve global prominence. Johns’ “Painting with Two Balls” was a bruising challenge to its dominance. Although its chaotic brushstrokes and dripped paint are associated with abstract impressionism, the wedge containing two paint-splattered balls subverts its fixation with a flat canvas and mocks its image as a masculine, “ballsy” art form. Leo Castelli, a gallerist who worked with Johns, said he “sounded the death knell for the previous movement as it existed.”
“Fool’s House” (1961-2)
In the early 1960s, Johns turned to a more personal subject matter and a darker palette. He also began to attach household items to paintings. “Fool’s House” contains a stretcher, a broom, a towel and a cup, which hangs off the canvas’s lower edge like a dangling fruit. Each is labelled in handwriting. “There’s a sense,” says Rebecca Bernstein, one of the curators, “of wanting to connect things, to see them as part of a continuum.” The combination of mixed media and dark humour was in the spirit of the Dada movement from the early 20th century: Johns and Rauschensberg were known as “neo-Dadaists”.
“Between the Clock and the Bed” (1981)
In 1973 Johns glimpsed a cross-hatch pattern on a passing vehicle. It was the start of a decade-long obsession. “I think I began doing cross-hatch paintings,” explained Johns in 1988, “as simple mathematical variations about how space can be divided.”
It culminated with a trio of canvases called “Between the Clock and the Bed”, two of which are featured in this exhibition. They are named after a self-portrait by Edvard Munch, which depicts the painter standing next to a bedspread with a cross-hatch pattern. In the background of Munch’s painting are a clock and a picture of a nude woman. The allusion to sex and death appealed to Johns, who was increasingly preoccupied with mortality.
In the mid-1980s, he moved away from abstraction to works that fused musings on death with art history and his own memories. “Summer”, the first in the “Four Seasons” series, is one of his most autobiographical works. On the left is the artist’s silhouette against a brick wall. On the right is a profusion of objects, placed on a cart that Johns borrowed from Picasso’s “Minotaur Moving His House” (1955). There are two American flags, a “Mona Lisa” postcard (a nod to Marcel Duchamp’s “ready-mades”), pottery by George Orr and a seahorse. A cross-hatch pattern partially conceals a demonic form from Matthias Grünewald’s “Isenheim Altarpiece” (1512-6), a recurring motif in Johns’ later works. Although he has claimed that the “Four Seasons” do not form a narrative, they do unavoidably give the sense of a life cycle.
Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth at the Royal Academy until December 10th