Something Resembling Truth

Art and auctions, Events, Exhibitions, Paintings and Sculpture — By on September 20, 2017 at 10:30 PM

Flag, 1958.

Royal Academy raises the flag on Jasper Johns show: ‘Something Resembling Truth’

By James Brewer

Two slices of plain bread; a flashlight torch; an archery target board; the US flag. Representations in the art of Jasper Johns tend to be of subjects mundane, and he wants people to stop and rethink their significance.

By appropriating widely recognisable signs and symbols, he seeks to make the familiar unfamiliar, challenging viewers to look more closely at “things the mind already knows,” the Royal Academy demonstrates in this new solo exhibition featuring one of the leading living artists.

Target, 1961.

The most striking example of this summons to deliberate anew is the image Johns created of the American flag. In presenting the motif, he brings out distinctive, complex textures that differentiate them within every-day perception – a subtlety of layered surfaces that at first glance escapes the eye. This is a painting, as opposed to the object—the flag – in view. Since he first painted the stars and stripes, another two states, Alaska and Hawaii, have been added to the union, but he asks the viewer to discern deeper changes within the plane as he recycles the subject. Between 1954 and 2002 he returned to the flag concept in 27 paintings, 10 sculptures, 50 drawings and 18 print editions.

The RA deems the oeuvre of Johns, who was born in May 1930, to be so important that it is giving over its main galleries to the first comprehensive survey in the UK in 40 years of the artist’s output.

Something Resembling Truth, the title of the exhibition, stems from something he said in 2006: “One hopes for something resembling truth, some sense of life, even of grace, to flicker, at least, in the work.”

0 through 9, 1961.

The curators – Roberta Bernstein, professor emeritus at the University of Albany, New York, and Edith Devaney, contemporary curator at the Royal Academy – consulted closely with the artist. They and their team must be congratulated for the clarity, both visually and intellectually, of their captions which put what some might see as the enigma of Johns into context. Other institutions would do well to emulate the RA’s flair for lucid labelling.

Although in some years he has produced little, Johns, an honorary Royal Academician, has been consistent in his production of iconic images of flags, targets, numbers, maps and light bulbs – all connected with the ambiguities of perception. Some of his works have been sold for millions of dollars.

He has occupied a central position in American art since his first solo exhibition in New York in 1958 and unlike many of his contemporaries (such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko) he concentrated on the external and material world rather than an examination of the self.

This stood out from the abstract expressionism that predominated in New York. The new show, comprising 150 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints, makes clear that after six decades he is still active – he produced a canvas specifically for it in late 2016 – and goes on experimenting.

Summer, 1985.

Taking as an example the depictions of the flag, Dr Bernstein said the question posed was how does an abstract design attain meaning, how do we appreciate the association it has taken on? He raises such apparent contradictions between the object and its presence as a symbol in everything he does. “There is always this key interest in meaning,” said Dr Bernstein.

Ms Devaney said they had in the exhibition sought to balance the early works with the later ones. She drew attention to the ability of Johns to play with colour and with dark tones. “There is so much to see in terms of texture.”

Johns first painted his country’s flag after seeing it in a dream. He explained that he was not doing so for its political status, but for its physical properties. It was one of what he called “things the mind already knows” but the eye takes for granted. When encountering the flag or other conventional items in a gallery, we are no longer blasé and see them differently.

To apply paint, he lit on a technique that suited him based on encaustic (a fast-drying, wax-based medium); and appended plaster relief and even domestic objects to his paintings, as well as incorporating them in his small sculptures, which are cast in bronze or other metals from wax and collage.

Regrets, 2013.

During the 1960s he brought into play the household and studio objects. Small plinths support the sculptures of dull-coloured torches and the unappetising-looking slices of ‘bread’, each being in various parts of painted paper, lead, copper, wood and epoxy.

His 1960 Painting with Two Balls, in encaustic and collage, is exactly what it says rather than a portal into some mystic or internal world, as is the case with the broad sweep of historical painting over the ages from the medieval European to the abstract expressionists.

On another occasion, he focuses on the most common word in the English language, THE, which he places in the lower part of a painting that is little-variegated grey. Yet another example of his treatment of paintings as objects rather than cyphers is a work that was inspired by, and appropriates pictorially, a blank canvas leaning against his wall.

Curators Roberta Bernstein and Edith Devaney.

For some other studies, he takes as his vantage point lying in the bathtub – when he is at his most autobiographical, and if you think about it, that applies to a good many people.

He takes series of basic numerals to create meaning simply through the way they are presented in numerous formats and even patinas. Numbers, 2007, has stencilled figures from zero to 9 in a grid.

His works of the 1970s are dominated by a pattern of diagonal strokes referred to as crosshatching, but he is still holding up a looking-glass in front of icons and in front of our presumptions, and overlaying citations from other artists.

This was developed during the 1980s and 1990s as he took stock of the themes of memory, sexuality, and the contemplation of mortality, and there are tracings and details of works by Matthias Grünewald, Pablo Picasso, Edvard Munch and others. The title of one oil on canvas, Between the Clock and the Bed, can be interpreted only with reference to a self-portrait by Munch at the age of 80, flanked by a grandfather clock and a bed with crosshatch-pattern coverlet.

In view: Untitled work from 1964-65.

By the early 2000s Johns had begun the pared-down Catenary series which include a hanging piece of rope. More memorably, he has even attached brooms to his canvases, as in Fool’s House, based on his studio. Recent works such as 5 Postcards, 2013 and Regrets, 2013, appear to bring in a more personal note. The title of the latter is said to have come from a rubber stamp in his office embossed with the words Regrets – Jasper Johns, to which he replies to invitations.

Jasper Johns spent his early life in South Carolina, with his paternal grandparents after the failure of his parents’ marriage, and briefly attended Parsons School of Design, New York. In 1954, returning to New York after army service, Johns met Robert Rauschenberg with whom he had a relationship. This was significant artistically as well as romantically, because the early works of Rauschenberg (1925-2008) anticipated pop art. Other influences on Johns at that time were choreographer Merce Cunningham and music composer John Cage.

Fool’s House, 1961–62.

Continuing to enjoy good health, Johns lives in a small town in Connecticut, and has a house bought in 1972 on the island of Saint Martin, in the Caribbean Sea, 300 km east of Puerto Rico, but which he has rarely visited in recent years. Given the devastation wrought on the French overseas territory by Hurricane Irma in September 2017, he seems unlikely to head in that direction in the foreseeable future.

In 1976, Johns collaborated with the playwright Samuel Beckett to create Foirades, or Fizzles, a book of 33 intaglio prints, which revisit earlier work by Johns, and of five text fragments in English and French by Beckett. Beckett’s contribution might be summed up in one of his short sentences: “There is nothing but what is said.”

The exhibition, which includes artworks that rarely travel from international private and public collections, is organised by the Royal Academy in collaboration with contemporary art museum The Broad, Los Angeles, whither it will be transferred to open from February 10 until mid-May 2018.

Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth’ is at the Royal Academy, Piccadilly, from September 23- December 10, 2017, 10am–6pm, Fridays until 10pm.

Photo captions in full:
Flag, 1958. Encaustic on canvas. Private collection © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. Photo: Jamie Stukenberg © The Wildenstein Plattner Institute.
Target, 1961. Encaustic and collage on canvas. The Art Institute of Chicago © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London. Photo: © 2017. The Art Institute of Chicago/Art Resource, NY/Scala, Florence.
0 Through 9, 1960. Charcoal on paper. Collection of the artist © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/ DACS, London 2017. Photo: Jamie Stukenberg/Professional Graphics Inc, Rockford, Illinois.
Summer, 1985. Encaustic on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London. © 2017. Digital image, the Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence.
Regrets, 2013. Oil on canvas. 127 x 182.9 cm. Collection of Marguerite Steed Hoffman © Jasper Johns / VAGA, New York / DACS, London 2017. Photo: © Jerry L. Thompson
Fool’s House, 1961–62. Oil on canvas with broom, sculptural towel, stretcher and cup. Private collection © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London.

Between the Clock and the Bed, 1981.

Between the Clock and the Bed, 1981. Oil on canvas. 182.9 x 320.7 cm. Collection of the artist © Jasper Johns / VAGA, New York / DACS, London 2017. Photo: Jamie Stukenberg © Wildenstein Plattner Institute, 2017.

RA’s giant Johns poster.

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