The master of arcane introspection - Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth, review
Source:The Telegraph Author:Alastair Sooke Date: 2017-09-20 Size:
Although it isn’t among the three paintings that open this exhibition,……

Credit: David Parry

Although it isn’t among the three paintings that open this exhibition, you sense it immediately, glimpsed through a doorway to the right, glittering under the lights, like an angel unexpectedly appearing in our drab, sublunary world.

Flag (1958), by the American artist Jasper Johns, is the foundation stone of his new retrospective at the Royal Academy, his first in Britain for 40 years. It also belongs to a series of works that altered the course of Western art history.

If you were a young artist in New York during the Fifties, there was only way you could hope to be taken seriously: you had to make abstract pictures, following the post-war triumph of the Abstract Expressionists.

Credit: David Parry

Yet Johns, an unknown, moon-faced boy with a poetic sensibility from the Deep South, changed all that, when, in 1954 prompted by a dream, he painted his first picture of the American flag.

At the RA, several later paintings of his Stars and Stripes are on show, including the example from 1958, an auspicious year for Johns, when his debut at Leo Castelli Gallery all but sold out, and three pictures were snapped up by the Museum of Modern Art.

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Why is Flag so special? Well, for one thing, the entire canvas replicates precisely the dimensions and appearance of an actual flag, so that we are momentarily wrong-footed into thinking that we are looking at a real object, pinned to the wall, rather than a painting. Truth versus illusion: here is a quintessential Johns paradox.

The Flags endure for another reason, too, because they take a pristine icon of America and invest it with great emotional significance. Painted using an ancient, fast-drying technique called encaustic, where pigments are mixed with hot wax, they offer a vision of a nation that is tattered, patched together, but still glowing, human, and whole. The drips of hardened wax are frozen tears. Whether of suffering or joy is for you to decide.

Back in the Fifties, of course, Johns’s enigmatic and epigrammatic work irradiated self-belief, and announced, in clarion terms, that the dominance of abstraction was over, kaput, defunct. He had discovered a clever way of reintroducing reality into the realm of fine art.

Target (1961) Credit: Digital Image

And, as the RA’s show reveals, flags weren’t the only everyday objects – “things the mind already knows,” as he once famously put it – that he painted and sculpted. He also depicted archery targets – great vortices of concentric colours, seemingly spinning to hypnotic effect – as well as Arabic numerals and maps of America’s 48 contiguous states.

In time, other ordinary, throwaway things also established themselves in Johns’s pictorial vocabulary: forks and spoons, light bulbs and brooms, rulers, torches, coat hangers, cans of beer. He paved the way for Pop Art.

In short, Johns, now 87, is a living monument from a golden age of American art. It’s hard to overstate his significance and influence. So, this retrospective of around 150 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints, produced over more than 60 years, is, de facto, a spectacular event. It allows us not only to marvel at some of his early masterpieces, but also to study lesser-known work that he created long after the first heroic decade of his career.

In a game move, the curators structure the show thematically – focusing, for instance, on his preoccupation with transience, or pictures set inside the artist’s studio (which, in one memorable title, he calls a “Fool’s House”). On one hand, this prompts us to consider the remarkable unity of Johns’s output: he often returns to symbols and motifs. On the other, it makes it tricky to get a proper handle on the distinct phases of his career.

Johns has a reputation as a sphinx: he rarely grants interviews, and is not in Britain for the opening of this show. The exhibition will not dispel the impression that his paintings are sometimes bewilderingly cryptic, cerebral affairs. Don’t come to the RA expecting Johns’s riddles to be solved.

Credit: David Parry

Moreover, while it is fascinating to spend time scrutinising the late work of a master, I left feeling ambivalent about some of it. People will gush about a cycle of four paintings from the mid-Eighties depicting the seasons, and so, by analogy, the ages of man. While, undoubtedly, it would be easy to talk about them – they are full of symbols for art historians to unpick – I am not sure that, as paintings, they have anything approaching the charismatic gestural authority of Johns’s earlier work.

They also suggest that, while Johns started out by depicting familiar things, in time, his motifs began to baffle. By the end of the show, Johns is shifting the same recondite images this way and that, like counters on a tabletop.

That said, this is a phenomenally fertile and complex exhibition, full of innovation and experimentation – and, to my surprise, wit. As well as being the Riddler of American art, Johns is also its deadpan comedian.

In Painting with Two Balls (1960), which explodes with firecracker-bright colours, a couple of small spheres prise open a join between two of the picture’s three canvases, like cartoon goggle-eyes peeping through from the other side. They are ridiculous, and funny. Painting Bitten by a Man (1961), meanwhile, with its disembodied bite-mark floating in a field of sensuous grey-green encaustic, is both feral and disturbing, and a hilarious send-up of Francis Bacon’s howling popes.

Credit: David Parry

And, in 1960, when Johns heard that the artist Willem de Kooning was grouching about Leo Castelli, the dealer, saying that he was a “son-of-a-bitch” who could sell any old tat, even a couple of beer cans, he promptly created a painted bronze sculpture of two Ballantine XXX Ale cans, which are at the RA.

With Johns, it’s important to remember that his elegant sense of irony is an essential element in his artistic identity – offsetting the portentousness of the Abstract Expressionists who preceded him.

Ultimately, though, Johns is not a great artist because he is a purveyor of amusing pictorial puzzles, full of visual puns – the equivalent, you could argue, of the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. Rather, he is great because, somehow, he accesses and articulates, in a gorgeous, sensual manner, mysteries that, for the rest of us, are unfathomable.

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Indeed, many of his paintings have an arcane, rabbinical quality. Like a priest, he seems to be in possession of great wisdom and spiritual insight into fundamental aspects of our existence. Skin (1975), for instance, is a haunting meditation on mortality, as delicate as a shroud, yet imbued with the authority of the art of ancient Egypt (surely a touchstone for Johns).

As an artist, Johns is always looking inwards – which is why, presumably, the curators selected a painting called Within as one of three works at the start. His paintings are characterised by timelessness and stasis. Sometimes, like stop signs on a road, they even seem to resist the viewer, blocking our line of sight, and challenging our preconception that a picture must offer a window onto a world.

Credit: David Parry

All this, I suppose, may sound ineffable and mysterious, and possibly even off-putting to those who prefer cold, hard prose to slippery poetry.

Certainly, it’s tricky to write about without sounding pretentious. Which is why Johns, who loves poetry, and often plays with language, is not, himself, a writer, but a visual artist capable of glimpsing, in his own words, “something resembling truth”. We may employ a different phrase, and say that he taps, rapturously, into something divine.

[Editor] 张艳

    Artintern