Jasper Johns at the Royal Academy review ***

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Jasper Johns “Something Resembling Truth”

Royal Academy of Arts. 10th November 2017

So here’s my theory. Sometime in the mid 1970s the real Jasper Johns was kidnapped by aliens and replaced with a cloned doppelganger. All the AI software was packed in but they forgot to prevent him from clicking “remind me later” when the updates rolled in. Which means that somewhere out there some little green fellas with one eye and a pokey-out antenna in a parallel Piccadilly are right now swooning over some sexy encaustic rendition of a far away galaxy. Whilst we look at bits of string dangling over some grubby canvasses or some vague tracings from a man too preoccupied with his own mortality.

How else to explain the chasm between the powerful and seductive work of the 1950s and 1960s and the relatively mundane offerings of the last few decades? This large scale retrospective kicks off with an introductory room with an iconic 1967 Flag, a trademark 1961 Target, and one of the grey cross hatched paintings from the 1980s where the doors have closed. Which seems prophetic. The curators have chosen to follow a broadly chronological format but have snuck in some of the later works to emphasise the links between the different periods of Mr Johns illustrious career. For me it just serves to highlight the fade in the power of the ideas and of the execution.

Mind you when it’s good it’s bloody marvellous. I can’t see how anyone could fail to be blown away by their first sight of Johns’ US flags from the mid 1950s. Conjured by a dream apparently, begun in oil but finished with strips of paper and that drippy, waxy encaustic paint, they have the material quality of their Abstract Expressionist predecessors but none of the boorish arrogance. Here is an everyday image, rendered realistically, but of a symbol charged with meaning. A sign of the signified. Having experienced this eureka moment there was no holding JJ back in his hunt to give us ““things that are seen and looked at, not examined”. Targets, the contents of his studio, hooks, coathangers, cutlery, beer cans. And the maps, those marvellous maps. I love maps, (I confess, without shame, to a geography degree), but these are something else. Of course I say maps, but bar one diversion, it is just one country and one typology. And then the numbers. One font, multiple variations, multiple materials. I wanted to go and lick the wall of bronzes. Don’t ask me why. Had to settle for staring.

All this symbolic stuff mixes the best of the pop, the conceptual, the minimalist and the Duchampian everyday with the beauty of the making. The fascination with language and meaning and the urge to deconstruct the painting itself led to some other jaw dropping stuff. Paintings prised apart by balls, the dissonance of primary colours and their linguistic identities, a canvas bitten by a bloke, presumably Johns. Bits of bodies. The bronzes perfect in their verisimilitude and the inspiration for subsequent generations. Love it.

Then he discovered that wretched cross-hatching and it all came off the boil. I can see the urge to portray repetition, literalness, the absence of meaning. But take away the mystery of the symbols and you risk banality. Trying to make us think there is something behind this doesn’t cut it for me. Same with the references to Munch, the collaboration with Samuel Beckett, the Catenary series, the revisit of his Seasons work which take up the second half of the exhibition. There is still much to chew on for sure and the imagination is fertile. They just don’t grab you by the throat like the earlier work.

In contrast to his mate Robert Rauschenberg, whose sense of fun and collaborative urges meant he could keep leaping from one bonkers project to the next, I reckon this dissection of the everyday might have been a bit of a trap for Jasper Johns which proved tricky to escape. Which is maybe why he has ended up quoting himself, always a bad sign. Still lucky for us he fell into it in the first place as we would be much poorer without it. As a reminder “art” is simply that which the rich and powerful buys, (with their own money or yours via pubic galleries), in this most perfect of capitalist markets. But, luckily for us plebs, the key externality is the opportunity to see some life enriching stuff. The first five or so rooms of “Something Resembling Truth” are about as good as it gets in terms of the second half of the C20 for such stuff.

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