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(c) Jasper Johns / VAGA, New York / DACS, London 2017. Photo: Jamie Stukenberg (c) The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, 2017

Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth’

24 September 2017 Will Rathbone

The Royal Academy’s exhaustive new retrospective – the first such exhibition in the UK for forty years – takes works from the six decade career of Jasper Johns and presents them thematically. From his early flags and targets, to later artworks incorporating a huge amount of cultural and self-references, Johns’ career is laid bare, and the exhibition’s structure helps to decode his trickier late career output.

The first image that greets you upon entry to the Royal Academy’s latest blockbuster tribute to their ‘Royal Academicians’ is the wide, cheery grin of the man himself – Jasper Johns. He sits, laughing, perched on a stool in his studio with his eyes screwed tight. Why he’s laughing we can’t tell, though that never seems to matter with Johns; it’s infectious, and we smile with him.  Sometimes, it’s best to enjoy the moment; don’t force it.


Jasper Johns, Flag, 1958. Private collection © Jasper Johns / VAGA, New York / DACS, London 2017. Photo: Jamie Stukenberg © The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, 2017
 
Johns’ best works operate in the same way. The brilliance of O through 9 (1961) is in the glorious colours – then you spot the point of a four, the curve of a nine. You’ll never see it all at once, but you know for sure it’s there. Two Flags on Orange (1986-7) only reveals the ‘I’ at its centre when you aren’t looking for it. Ocean (1996) layers Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion map – an icosahedron that ‘unfolds’ the globe into a 2D shape – on top of a standard map. Beyond this lies the Milky Way. It hints at the myriad perspectives that exist – more than anyone can truly comprehend.
 
Johns works with representation, and throughout his career he questions why certain symbols and shapes bear so much significance. Then he breaks that significance to reveal the ‘truth’ behind it. Yes, it’s a flag. But it’s also a painting. Can it be both? What makes a normal flag more than a piece of textile? What stops you throwing darts at the targets?


Jasper Johns, Target, 1961. The Art Institute of Chicago © Jasper Johns / VAGA, New York / DACS, London.  Photo: © 2017. The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY / Scala, Florence
 
The questioning doesn’t stop with symbols – it moves onto the paintings themselves. Painting with Two Balls (1960) sees three canvasses atop one another, covered in broad brushstrokes and vibrant primary colours. The top two canvasses have been prised apart, with two small wooden balls inserted in between. Suddenly, the paint and colour play second fiddle to the canvas itself – the composite parts of the painting struggle for equal recognition. There is undoubtedly humour at play in Johns’ work (remember that grin?). Painting bitten by a Man (1961) is exactly that – a small, grey canvas with a bite in the middle.
 
Duchamp’s influence is apparent throughout, but then Johns is never shy about showing his influences. Peers feature heavily in his works, be it a photo of Merce Cunningham (Ocean, 1996), sheet music from a John Cage composition (Perilous Night, 1982) or a poem from Frank O’Hara (Skin with O’Hara Poem, 1963-5). These external references add to the many layers that come to define Johns’ later output. The exhibition moves between his overarching themes, uncovering motifs that, once they have emerged, continue throughout his life. A towel, first glimpsed in Fools House (1961-2) is then seen hanging up in numerous paintings. Hints and suggestions of flags are never too far away; a crosshatching pattern – first glimpsed in a car that passed him on Long Island – becomes a constant fixation.


Jasper Johns, Painting with Two Balls, 1960. Collection of the artist © Jasper Johns / VAGA, New York / DACS, London 2017. Photo: Jamie Stukenberg © The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, 2017
 
The exhibition eschews chronology in favour of a thematic through-line, and this curatorial decision helps the later pieces remain accessible. As the years pass, Johns collects so many ideas and signs that his later works are somewhat overwhelming. One wonders whether the later Seasons (1985-6) paintings, and the Five Postcards (2010) follow-ups, would work as well as stand-alones. Here, in this exhibition, they retain meaning. Having wandered through seven rooms, everything is recognisable and familiar.

The glory of Johns’ early work is irresistible, and as you journey through the exhibition, the sense of a man exploring the world around him – questioning everything along the way – is infectious. He makes you look at the everyday afresh, and you can’t help but join in with his laughter. You don’t have to get the whole joke to find it funny – that’s the secret.
 
Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth’ runs at the Royal Academy until 10 December. Tickets cost £19.
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