Last autumn London’s Royal Academy of Arts gave us Abstract Expressionism, a mighty exhibition celebrating the output of the stellar artists of the genre – Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning and their contemporaries. This year, in what may be a deliberate sense of continuity, the RA’s major winter exhibition focuses on the work of the American artist Jasper Johns, whose renditions of familiar or very recognisable objects – flags, targets, maps, beer cans, numbers, and letters – provide a daring counterpoint to the subjectivity and portrayal of the “inner self” of the Abstract Expressionists.
The exhibition comprises over 150 works, spans over 60 years of Johns’ life and is the first major survey of the artist’s work to be shown in the UK in 40 years. If this sounds exhaustive, visitors can expect to be pleasantly surprised on entering the large rooms of Burlington House. The size of Johns’ work, and the intelligent way in which it is displayed, prevents this exhibition from becoming too overwhelming. But it’s undeniably intense – the introspective nature of his work and his determination to give little of himself away in his art. The exhibition is presented thematically rather than chronologically, so that the viewer can chart the evolution of Johns’ personal iconography and his lifelong interest in repetition and variation.
Most people associate with Jasper Johns with paintings of flags. His flag paintings were made in the 1950s, during the Cold War and at a time when America was replete with patriotism, exceptionalism and anti-Soviet sentiment. The American flag is a potent, almost cult-like symbol, a clarion call to national unity, and common purpose, a social sign which resists aesthetic transformation. In Flag (1958), created the year of the artist’s highly auspicious exhibition at the Leo Castelli gallery in New York, we find the US flag replicated exactly in its dimensions and appearance. But when Johns painted a flag he used a technique called encaustic (heated beeswax) which creates unusual complex textures on the canvas. Treated this way the flag, that powerful icon of America, becomes something else – is it still an American flag? Does it now symbolise something completely different or has it lost its meaning altogether? With that crinkled, tattered surface it could symbolise a nation battered and bruised but still holding it all together…… Truth or illusion. Truth or post-truth. This is the essence of Johns’ artistic raison d’etre and in the 1950s it represented a significant move away from the navel-gazing of the Abstract Expressionists and a return to realism.
This appropriation of familiar objects – flags, targets, beer cans, numbers – and their transformation through Johns’ distinctive techniques makes the familiar unfamiliar and challenges us to examine these objects and symbols in different ways, without the nuance of their original meaning or significance. A painted target, for example, is no longer a real one: seen aesthetically, as a painting in a gallery, its original purpose is now lost. It is no longer a sign but an image designed to “delay the eye”. In a way it operates in the same sphere as Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas un pipe (This is not a pipe) – because it is a painting, not a flag.
Johns would show what could be done with things that were not invented – things so well known that they were not well seen
– Robert Hughes, ‘The Shock of The New’
Gradually, other familiar objects – brooms, beer cans, light bulbs, torches – found their way into Johns’ work, thus paving the way for Pop Art. Later works move into abstraction with his cross-hatchings, while the work from the 1980s and 90s explores ambiguities of perception and themes of memory, sexuality, and the contemplation of mortality.
His work is not always immediately accessible and he is famously enigmatic (he rarely gives interviews), but the pieces in this exhibition demand close interrogation and while their meaning or intent may not be immediately apparent, his technical and artistic assuredness is always evident. The development of his approach is charted through these works and his diversity and imagination is what makes this show so interesting. If you attended the RA’s Anselm Kiefer exhibition in 2014, this survey of Johns’ work acts as a useful comparison – two living artists with distinct and highly personal approaches to art and their portrayal of the world in which they exist.
Until 10 December 2017