In room one of Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth at the Royal Academy, a quote from the artist is printed on the wall as a way to explain the rationale for the exhibition: ‘One hopes for something resembling truth, some sense of life, even of grace, to flicker, at least, in the work’. Divided into eight themes—‘Things the Mind Already Knows’, Painting as Object, Words and Voices, In the Studio, Time and Transience, Fragments and Faces, Seasons and Cycles, and Memory Tracings—the exhibition seeks to present the artist according to the various concerns of his career, framing for the viewer the breadth of approaches and subject matter explored by this crucial figure for the development of twentieth century American painting. These categories, though evocative, are ultimately unhelpful, doing little to contain a practice which resists categorisation. Instead the work on display deliberately slips between interpretative registers, the ‘something resembling’ more important here than the ‘truth’.
Johns’ play with representation is well evidenced in the exhibition which shows 150 of the artist’s sculptures, paintings and drawings and is the first major retrospective of his work to be shown in the UK for 40 years. The flags, maps, and numbers for which the artist is most well known are all abundantly represented, as are his bright, colourful canvases with words stencilled into the background, his painted bronzes, his graphite drawings and lithographs. In each example there is an investigation into the nature of the relationship between signs and their referents that remains a central concern of the artist’s work. The complexity of these experiments vary, but they are always interesting, evidencing the turn in the 1950s towards a consideration of the nature of symbols, developed throughout the decades of Johns’ career to include attention to numerous influences, ranging from Ballantine beer to Samuel Beckett’s Fizzles.
Although this is interesting to consider, what stands out in the exhibition is not the artist’s conceptual play but his formal investigations. Encaustic is the material particularly associated with Johns, and his varied experiments with this mix of wax and pigment is visible throughout the show with works like Painting Bitten by a Man (1961) in which a deep and abject waxy grey surface is scraped through by the teeth of the artist, Usuyuki (1977- 8), a white cross-hatched triptych with brighter colours visible underneath the dull short lines on the surface, and Untitled (1988) one of his bathtub series that depicts a melting version of Picasso’s Woman in a Straw Hat and a figure abstracted from the Isenheim Altarpiece. More than just encaustic, this exhibition shows his experiments with the formal qualities of a range of materials. In a room dedicated to his depictions of numbers, there is included his Number 0-9 (2011). This twelve panel bronze work made more than fifty years after his iconic Flag demonstrates a similar interest in surface and material. The patination on the bronze ranges from excremental brown to blackened silver, not the smooth surface often associated with bronze, instead the surfaces are marked with drips and splodges, sometimes smooth, sometimes rough and messy. Oil paint too is examined. In Untitled (1964- 5), colour is put on display in large panels of blue, red and yellow interrupted by swatches of rainbow colour and grey stencilled letters. Skin with O’Hara Poem (1963-5) demonstrates an investigation of lithography, recording the smudged and scumbled index of his own face and hands that contrast with the neat printing of Frank O’Hara’s ‘The Clouds Go Soft’.
This play with form is best demonstrated in one of the most recognisable works included in the exhibition. In the room entitled ‘Things the Mind Already Knows’, a quote taken from a 1959 article by the artist on his own work, the first artwork we encounter is Flag (1958). Though not the 1954-5 original that first offered a way out of the Greenbergian cul-de-sac of flatness that was dominating the American art world at the time, still this work demonstrates much of what was so significant about the gesture. Hung in a way that facilitates a close engagement with the object itself, the encaustic with which it is painted is textured and matt, a visually rich surface that draws the eye into its details and rewards close attention. Indeed, the rest of the quote from which the title of the room is taken asserts this attention to the material presence of the work; in a 1953 edition of TIME Magazine Johns stated ‘I’ve always thought of a painting as a surface’. Seeing Flag in person allows a detailed consideration of this contention; its texture and colour, its record of brushstrokes, and the trace of the artist’s hand are made more apparent in their relationship to the assumed flatness and smoothness of flag-as-symbol.
The Stars and Stripes is a form that is so overdetermined in its meaning as to negate any fixed claims for its significance; even if we are dubious of its capacity to be separated from its associations with nationhood and patriotism that would render it merely a sign, hanging on the wall of the gallery it can be read as affirmation, negation, critique, such a mute gesture as is impossible to decipher. Considering Flag in light of the claims made for painting around the same time (Greenberg’s radio address that formed the basis of the essay ‘Modernist Painting’ and asserted flatness as the major condition of painting was delivered in 1960) this is a painting that proposes a way for the lessons of formalism to be brought back into contact with the world, using the flag as an apparently arbitrary vehicle for a sustained consideration of form made apparent through the insistent materiality of the surface. Seen in this exhibition, we are able to engage fully with the implications of the collision of sign and surface, investigating the interaction through sustained attention.
This is the strength of Something Resembling Truth: it offers the viewer the opportunity to dwell on the complex materiality of Johns’ oeuvre. Throughout the exhibition, we can see Johns returning again and again to the same subjects and approaches, combining and complicating them as his practice develops. With the amount of work on show this builds to offer the viewer a keen and valuable insight into Johns’ experimental, formal practice.
Rachel Warriner teaches art history at City & Guilds of London Art School. Her book, Pain and Politics in Postwar Feminist Art: Activism in the Work of Nancy Spero, is forthcoming with I B Tauris in 2018. Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth was on view 23 September – 10 December 2017.