A couple of months ago Richard Guest and I visited the Jasper Johns exhibition ‘Something Resembling Truth’ at the Royal Academy in London. Then we exchanged emails about it, and this is the result.
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When we arranged to visit this show, I confess that I was doing it out of a sense of duty rather than because I thought I would enjoy it. It was a show that I thought I ought to see: a definitive survey of a major artist. Johns is an iconic presence in the art of the last hundred years; but I thought his work was a bit dry, a bit ‘correct’ and he was not necessarily among my favorites. I certainly didn’t have that sense of rock star excitement I had when I was going to see Jackson Pollock, Picasso or Kiefer. I was so wrong! I don’t think I have ever been so pleasantly surprised by a show: after seeing it I would certainly put him up there with the very best. What were your expectations going in?
If I’m honest, I thought it would be a box-ticking exercise; when you’ve seen so many of these works in reproduction, they seem really familiar, so I wasn’t expecting many surprises. I certainly wasn’t prepared for the emotional power of the works’ physical presence. And I was bowled over from the first. Reproductions could never do these works justice.
Shall we start at the beginning of the exhibition and talk about Target, 1961? The first thing that struck me was the size of the work; it filled more of my field of vision than I was expecting…
Target was hanging in the first room, and we just walked straight at it! There was no preamble in this show, no juvenile works or historical context – it was just straight down to the big stuff. And that caught me off guard. Without the usual build up (and time to put up my mental barriers perhaps), it was as you say: the physical presence of the work was so much more powerful than I had bargained for. The intensity of the mark making and the density of the paint just don’t register in reproduction. And it is much bigger than I thought it was too – in a way bigger than the idea alone would require. The vigour and commitment of the painting was very strong; much more emphatic than someone just executing an idea. Or else he was just faking it very well, but I don’t think so. I felt he had a real fervour to paint, and it was very uplifting. More than that though – it suggested to me that my idea of Johns as a ‘cool’ painter concerned primarily with ideas and who used paint only to reference the History of Western Art was at least partially mistaken. To me it suggested that he was taking the vigour of Abstract Expressionism and fusing it with conceptual irony that came from a European tradition of Surrealism and Duchampian detachment. It was hanging in the octagonal room, and somehow that room always makes stuff look great!
Yes, it was nice to skip the part where you squint at a load of tiny works on paper. No preamble needed, I guess!
I’ve started to think the idea is just a point of departure for Johns – it starts a purely tactile and visual exploration. You can see the hand of the artist, but it’s at the service of the exploration – Johns is not trying to show us it’s him painting. The marks look to me like evidence of a thorough absorption in the activity. Ha, yes I’ll never think of him as detached again! I like your fusion idea – it’s as if he liked the marks the Abstract Expressionists were making, but did not trust their stated aims. Even so, I think the way he manipulates materials have a similar effect for me – they record a human presence/ action and provoke an emotional response. I wonder what he feels when he’s staring at a finished work…
Well, his aims are clearly divergent from Rothko, Pollock and co, who were deep in existentialism and Post-War trauma. Johns – obviously quite a bit younger – doesn’t suffer from this and is not turning has back on the material world. Completely the opposite in fact; his paintings are celebrating the American Moment. Not for Jasper the gloomy emotional self-lacerations of the Abstract Expressionists or the self-referential obviousness of Pop. And yet he shares a surprising amount with both – from the physical involvement in the medium that he inherited from Abstract Expressionism on the one hand to the use – or misuse – of readily recognisable symbols and objects from everyday ‘real’ life which he shares with Pop and Dada on the other.
I think you are right to say the idea is the point of departure, but (to grind the analogy out a bit) the vehicle for the journey is that borrowed object from the real world – the target, flag or map that we all recognise immediately. Then he can take us wherever he may as the viewer gets immersed in the spiritual intensity of the mark making. He clearly chose things with good abstract potential rather than figurative imagery which would have been harder for him to work with, but also things that were familiar enough to resonate with almost any viewer. Could he have chosen almost anything: road signs, logos, labels etc? Or would that have changed the feel of his work? He only seems to have worked with a handful of these motifs for decades.