Jasper Johns’ work has always been an enigmatic presence at the back of my interest in painting. At the art school I attended (Wimbledon School of Art in south west London) he was a figure who regularly enough was referred to. But at the time he was also an artist who always seemed difficult to categorize and place in an art historical context. His early work was a reaction to and a moving on from, the abstract expressionists, taking painting into new areas. Yet in the art world of the sixties and seventies his work never falls easily into any of the dominant directions of the time. There are relationships to aspects of minimalism, conceptualism and pop art, but there are as many differences as similarities.
The retrospective show at the Royal Academy in London only underlines the slightly divergent route that Johns has taken throughout as he has built his own reference library of motifs and symbols that he draws on again and again in his work. Seen as a whole the work feels extremely autobiographical in the end, as he ends up almost coming full circle chasing his own personal and art historical story.
The title of the exhibition is “Something Resembling Truth“. In the early work it’s easy to see an observer at work, and one that questions the visual world around us. He asks us to reconsider the visual truths that we perhaps take for granted but are actually rather more layered and offer multiple interpretations, as in the early flag, targets and text work.
As you progress through the show that is arranged in a roughly chronological order you become increasingly aware that the visual symbolism and references that Johns makes use of are becoming increasingly personal. This might be in the form of being objects and items found around his studio, the trappings of his artistic practice as in the painted bronze that shows us a representation of his brushes. Or it could be the ‘devices’ that play a physical part in the manufacture of the image. Later it might be reference to his friend Merce Cunningham or is fascination with favourite artistic connections, be those Munch, Duchamp or Newman. The artist builds up a visual library that he continues to add to but he gets older increasingly dips back into, to reference himself.
In a sense it is the luxury of an artist of an older generation. Is there a continuing sense of visual exploration and discovery in the work? Perhaps not, or at least not as there once was. Previously the visual content had been refined to create full resolved and engaging pieces. Resulting in pieces, such as Between the Clock and the Bed, one of my own personal favorites, from the series featuring the crosshatching motif.
However what there is to see in the later work are paintings and prints that reference the artist’s own history, his own visual language and what it is to be an artist with such an extensive personal back catalogue. In that sense the exhibition is certainly offering something resembling truth.
From a personal perspective I do like the way Johns repeatedly explores a recurring motif for an extended period. It’s something I recognize in my own work and something I was encouraged to do back at art school in Wimbledon as a student by the then head of the painting school, John Mitchell…..John was, incidentally, another big Jasper Johns admirer.