Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Jasper Johns, Something Resembling Truth @ Royal Academy, London

Jasper Johns, Flag, 1958
As I entered the Jasper Johns exhibition at the Royal Academy, I was so excited that I could almost hear my heart beat. Johns is an artist whose work has deeply engaged me over decades, and the prospect of a full retrospective was more than my anticipation could handle. It’s difficult to describe the feeling of entering a space to be greeted by Flag, 1958 or Target, 1961 there in front of me, in the flesh, after seeing them so often in reproduction. As I wandered through the first couple of rooms including that filled with grey numbers, I was mesmerized. Johns’ paintings are more intellectual than emotional, often playing on words, colors, undercutting what we think we know, and the history of painting. But in the first rooms, I was carried away by the thick and luscious, if truncated, brushstrokes as they danced over newspaper, and I experienced the joy of being together with Johns' fastidious crafting of the painted surface, and his complicated use of stencils.
Jasper Johns, Map, 1962-63
Once I came down to earth, and was able to take it all in, I ultimately found the exhibition to be disappointing. This wasn’t the failing of Johns’ great art, but the curation didn’t capture the complexity of the artist’s thinking and the sophistication of his work. The paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings work on so many levels, as playful games that can have a viewer roaring with laughter, as treatises on the history of art, as modernist explorations of the very definition of painting, as philosophical reflections on life and identity, as searing critiques of American politics, and the list goes on. But at the Royal Academy, these works by arguably one of the greatest living painters, are reduced to a series of somewhat simplified themes: paintings as objects, changing dimensions, words and voices, time and transience, and so on.
Jasper Johns, Between the Clock and the Bed, 1981
I hear critics and art lovers alike dismissing Johns after 1980. I agree that the late work is not consistently outstanding, but I am not one of those people who write off late-Johns. I happen to think that the Catenary works of the 2000s are among the most sophisticated paintings in his oeuvre, and some of the most complex paintings produced this century. In them the catenary string, as the most perfect modernist form, is consistently cut short, embedded in encaustic paint, hung from side panels with the excess at its side; it is manipulated in all manner of ways to comment on and critique painting from the Renaissance through Modernity as the measure of what painting can and can’t do. No one else alive is doing this with the same level of intensity in painting. I also believe the later cross hatch works, their fascination with form and their connections to the fragmented body, music, dance, and the great masterpieces of high modernist art are at the centre of his oeuvre. That is, their concerns recur and are developed in the later lithographs and screen prints especially. However, the paucity of these media and the insistence on a limited set of themes in the exhibition mean those connections are not shown.
Jasper Johns, Catenary (Jacob's Ladder) , 1999
There’s also the title: Something Resembling Truth. Of course, given the title of my forthcoming book — The Truth is Always Grey — I wholeheartedly approve of the title. However, nothing in the exhibition leads the viewer towards an understanding of what the title means. Or indeed, how the museum is using the title to explore Johns’ work. I also really enjoyed the non-chronological juxtaposition of works from different periods in his career. But as far as I could see, aside from the thematic groupings, there was little that came of the juxtapositions. I think back to the Richter exhibition at Tate Modern when unlikely juxtapositions gave us a sense of how the artist’s fascination for color and form, for example, are explored in still life and abstraction at the very same moment. In the Richter exhibition, the curation allowed us to see Richter’s mind in motion on and between canvases. But juxtaposition in this Johns exhibition merely showed him as dexterous in the use of materials and the variety of his concerns. When grey paintings and the brightly colored canvases are placed next to each other, we learn nothing about his use of colour. Or when the cross-hatches from the 1980s are placed in the same room as Painting Bitten By a Man from 1961, we learn nothing of Johns’ preoccupation with surfaces, bodies, repetition and uniqueness. It’s in these ways that the depth of his thinking was placed secondary to images that happened to look nice together.
Jasper Johns, Painting Bitten by a Man, 1961
The angry and funny young man who made flags and bullseyes, placed casts of his body parts as the framed extension of the canvas, hung cutlery, painted over the red white and blue flag in a gamut of greys and made the map of America fall off the canvas, as the country was on its way to Vietnam, is not here at the Royal Academy. Visitors will luxuriate in the visual density of Johns’ oeuvre, but they won’t learn about its intellectual complexity or experience its emotional depth. I believe that it is possible to look at Jasper Johns’ extensive body of work and see everything there is to learn about art and its trajectory over the past fifty years. But the lessons are probably not going to be learnt from a visit to the Royal Academy this Fall. Johns’ admirers and critics will be awed by the well-hung works in the flesh, but newcomers might not give them the attention they warrant.

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