“One hopes for something resembling truth, some sense of life, even of grace, to flicker, at least, in the work.” Jasper Johns, 2006.
Jasper Johns (b.1930) is an American painter, sculptor and printmaker recognised for his iconic representations of the US flag. The Royal Academy of Arts in London has produced a thorough exhibition that provides insight into the artist’s life as well as his distinctive art style. Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth’ contains over 150 paintings and sculptures that Johns has completed throughout the past 60 years. Beginning with his earliest existing work (he destroyed everything prior to 1954), the exhibition explores the techniques and purposes behind his artwork and documents the gradual changes Johns employed as he developed as an artist.
At the beginning of Jasper Johns’ career, the art world was in the midst of the Abstract Expressionism movement where artists were vibrantly communicating their inner selves to the public through symbolic paintings. Johns, on the other hand, avoided all forms of existing art factions by painting things exactly as they are seen, destroying the idea that art must have a hidden meaning. By producing images of universally familiar objects, Johns wanted to represent things that are often seen but never really looked at in great detail. His idiosyncratic ideas have helped to raise him to the status of one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.
To say Johns was interested in painting the American flag is an understatement. Already this year, one of Johns’ flags has featured in an exhibition at the British Museum and the Royal Academy have collated a handful of different ones. In total, Johns painted the flag 27 times, used it within ten sculptures, drew it 50 times and produced 18 prints. He claims that “One night I dreamed that I painted a large American flag, and the next morning I got up and I went out and bought the materials to begin it.” This suggests that his interest in the flag was originally nothing more than an urge to paint it, however, it later garnered a much stronger purpose and role within his artwork.
Beginning with the flag, Johns began a series of paintings that question things the mind is already aware of. He appropriated objects that the majority of people, at least in America, would have been familiar with since childhood. However, despite the lack of a symbolic meaning, Johns attempted to make the known unfamiliar to its audience. Flag (1958) is a realistic painting of the American flag (the one they had at the time before Alaska and Hawaii joined in 1959) with the stripes and stars exactly proportionate to the real thing. What Johns was interested in was whether other people saw it as a painting or as a flag – perhaps both. What is the expectation of a painting? Being presented on a stretched canvas, Flag cannot be raised on a flagpole and therefore cannot function as a true flag, therefore, one can argue that it is only a painting. On the other hand, if someone were to ask what the American flag looked like, showing them a Jasper Johns version would be just as good as showing them a photograph of the real thing – does that make the painting a flag?
To think too much about the function of Flag causes a lot of confusion and can never truly be resolved – there is no right or wrong answer. One thing that cannot be debated is its material; it truly is a painting. The brushstrokes produced by the artist’s hand are still evident when standing in front of the canvas. Johns uses a technique called encaustic, which he found much more beneficial than more traditional approaches. Encaustic painting involves mixing colour pigments with molten wax, which, although rather laborious to make, is quick drying and resists the effects of ageing and other damaging elements. It is easy to layer paintings using this medium and this can be seen in the majority of Johns’ paintings around the gallery. Today, Johns is one of the only remaining artists to employ this method.
As well as tangible objects, Jasper Johns painted other everyday motifs prompting similar questions about perception. Again, there were no hidden meanings behind these artworks and they could often function in the same way as their original counterpart. The RA displays painted maps and targets by the artist that, although evidently painted, can also function as a map or a target. Another interest of Johns are numbers, familiar figures that are seen all the time but rarely thought of as more than a piece of information.
Johns strips these numbers of their function in his charcoal drawing 0 Through 9 (1961) in which he has positioned each number on top of the other until left with a mess of lines and shape. It is still possible, by studying the artwork, to detect each individual number, but they have effectively been rendered purposeless. They neither inform or function as a number is traditionally meant to do. But, has that stopped them from being numbers?
As Johns continued to consider what a painting was rather than what it represented he began to move away from the traditional usage of the canvas. Often using collage as well as paint, the various layers in his works are obvious to the viewer and reveal how the piece was made. To draw attention to the canvas, Johns cuts, crops or extends it to make its presence more obvious. This is a technique he has employed in creating Painting with Two Balls (1960). By splitting the canvas and wedging in two wooden balls, Johns reveals the wall behind the painting. This emphasises that the viewer is seeing a painting on canvas, attached to a wall; there is nothing more meaningful about it.
Johns’ visual perception of everyday objects extends to his experimentation with sculpture, however, this is where the idea of the function becomes obscured. There’s no doubt that Johns was skilled at what he did, particularly in the case of Painted Bronze (1960) – one of the highlights of the exhibition. In a glass case, almost concealed amongst all the other art in the room, is what appears to be a selection of wooden paintbrushes in an old coffee tin – something that would be typically found in Johns’ studio. However, it is actually a hyper-realistic representation of brushes and a tin sculpted and cast in bronze, and then painted in oils. It is only by looking closely at the tin that the oil paint becomes noticeable. The words “Savarin Coffee”, for example, have demonstrably been painted by hand.
Unlike his flags and maps which could function as both a painting and an object, Painted Bronze has no physical purpose. Despite it looking like a tin full of paintbrushes, it would be impossible to pick one up and use it. This may be why Johns opted for the title Painted Bronze as opposed to Savarin Coffee Can or Tin of Paint Brushes.
Not only did Johns’ coffee can move away from the form and function theme, it was one of the first artworks that revealed something about the artist himself. Whereas his previous works had focused on everyday objects familiar to all, these brushes were more personal to Johns and were something he needed in his life to be able to live an artistic lifestyle. This sculpture marks a turning point in Johns’ career.
Until 1961, Jasper Johns had been in an intimate relationship with the artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), another pioneering artist of the time. The end of the seven-year romance resulted in a strong sense of emotional loss, which began to become evident in Johns’ work. Struggling with his personal feelings, he turned to language and words and began to incorporate these into his paintings. As a result, he became particularly interested in the philosophies of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) who put forth the opinion that conceptional confusions surrounding language are at the root of most philosophical problems. Writing about semantics, Wittgenstein suggests that the meanings of words are in how they are used rather than what they are supposed to describe.
A couple of paintings in the exhibition may remind visitors of a particular brain game in which the task is to say the colour a word is written in and not the world itself. For example, if the word “black” is written in the colour red, one must, therefore, say “red”. In Jasper Johns’ False Start (1959) paint has been wildly splattered over the canvas in the primary colours: red, yellow and blue. Layered over the interlocking patches are the words “red”, “yellow” or “blue”, however, never on their respective colours. This explores Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language and the meanings of words. What we see and what we read are two opposing details. Many people have been intrigued by this painting, and in 2006, it became the most expensive painting by a living artist, selling at $80 million.
During the 1980s, Jasper Johns became more personal with his works and his paintings began to include symbolism and meaning. However, this did not revert to the thought processes of Abstract Expressionism; it was still a unique endeavour on Johns’ part.
“In my early work I tried to hide my personality, my psychological state, my emotions. This was partly to do with my feelings about myself and partly to do with my feelings about painting at the time. I sort of stuck to my guns for a while, but eventually it seemed like a losing battle. Finally, one must simply drop the reserve.” Jasper Johns, 1984
The paintings Johns produced in this era are more meaningful for himself than anyone else viewing the painting. Johns was having trouble sleeping because he had too much on his mind. In order to sort through these thoughts, he painted six canvases titled Racing Thoughts in which he places his mental pictures onto a representation of a bathroom wall – implying he is thinking whilst taking a bath – to create a form of mood board.
The personal iconography in these paintings reflects on Johns’ past, his memories and his artistic influences. Occasionally they are metaphorical items, for instance, a skull which may represent death, but many are direct references to specific parts of his life. In one painting, located at the very beginning of the exhibition, Johns has combined a reproduction of the Mona Lisa and photograph of an art dealer, Leo Castelli, with other artistic allusions. This suggests that Johns admired the artist Leonardo Da Vinci, and the inclusion of Castelli is obvious since he was the man who gave Johns his first art show.
Despite the change in Jasper Johns’ artwork, he has not rejected the idea of perception and illusion. Within the six Racing Thoughts, he has experimented with trompe-l’œil with the inclusion of a commemorative vase for Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. At first, all that may be seen is a white vase, but on further inspection, the negative space reveals the profiles of two faces: the Queen and Prince Philip.
These instances of optical illusion feature in later works, including Spring (1986) (pictured above) which was part of a series of four depicting the seasons. These are also the nearest Johns has got to a self-portrait, using a tracing of his shadow to make his presence known. Each painting contains objects, colours and trompe-l’œil that Johns associates with the four different times of the year.
As suggested by the title of the exhibition, Something Resembling Truth, the relationship between reality and illusion is Jasper Johns primary concern that he tackles in his paintings. Although he did not intend to conjure any subliminal meanings, many have wandered the gallery attempting to interpret what they saw before them. Each spectator may have produced their own subjective opinion based on their own knowledge and experience. However, no opinion is wrong when it comes to art. Johns may have been trying to paint something in reality with no emotions attached, but if it evokes something else in its audience, that is no less of a reality.
The exhibition at the Royal Academy has come to a close, but it has been well received by many visitors and friends of the academy. True to their typical style, the curators provided written information around the gallery to explain some of the artworks and also provide an insight into Johns’ life and thought process. With an audio guide that was included in the price of the ticket, the RA excelled themselves, producing something that was as informative as it was entertaining. This is something that remains consistent throughout the exhibitions hosted by the RA. Some people may not be moved by the artwork, however, the background information and knowledge make it worth a visit.
Many exhibitions take place throughout the year at the Royal Academy, so keep checking the website to see if there is anything that takes your interest.
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in collaboration with The Broad, Los Angeles.