By way of a detour to starting my doctorate in Fine Art at the UEL I dropped in to see the Jasper Johns retrospective at the RA. I have admired Johns’s art for many years, and was lucky enough to see one of his flag drawings at the Barbican in the ‘Dancing around the Bride’ exhibition (2013) and then later ‘Flag’ (1954-5) at the MoMA, in New York. I was very excited to learn that so much of his work was being brought together in this retrospective and that it was coming to London.
Johns’s flag series was a massive influence when I created my painting of the Union Jack ‘Repatriation’… I appreciated his sense of impatience with oil paint, and the need to fix an idea, in his case one inspired by a dream. His use of wax paint (encaustic oil) was outmoded but enabled this, and it also allowed him to get off the surface of the canvas, building an image with texture. To assist in his textural creation Johns added newspaper to the substrate, which was sometimes overt and other times not so much, when he would use plain newsprint instead of old copies of printed papers, he always claimed that the content, and the edition was irrelevant. The iconic ‘Flag’ (1954-5) was made in three sections, presumably making it easier to isolate the encaustic oil, for his canvas he used old bed sheets mounted on wood.
In the mid 1950’s when Johns started to paint his flags, art was less impatient and yet more urgent; the Abstract Expressionists ruled the contemporary art world. Those who’d been heralded for nearly a decade by the art critic Clement Greenberg, artists like Pollock, Rothko, Newman and de Kooning were the then avant guard. They were fuelled with alcohol and the CIAs covert culture funding operation (which was outed in the mid nineties by Stonor-Saunders et al). The Ad Exers were arguably at their zenith, and primed ready to be knocked off their perches. So what does the next generation of artists do but prod and subvert. Robert Rauschenberg (Johns’s then partner and fellow artist) asked de Kooning for a drawing and then rubbed it out creating ‘Erased de Kooning’. Johns made a simulacrum of Americas most important symbol, the star spangled banner… In doing so he not only made the abstract form which could be used as itself I.e. a flag, Johns had also painted a flag, further to this he causes the spectator to consider the flag in a cultural setting. Johns then goes on to re-present the flag in various defamiliarised forms, all white ones and all black ones (possibly a comment on civil rights) where the texture and brushstrokes depict the form alone. This deconstruction and remaking is intended to encourage the viewers to reconsider their relationship with the flag, the establishment and with America’s identity. Johns went on to create a series of works that represented ‘things-in-the-world’ and challenged himself to use the artwork to engage the spectator; by getting them to count, look for patterns, tropes or motifs, and later representations of others’ work in his paintings.
Johns tends to find simple ideas and then return to them, reworking and developing the work to the point of saturation, with each pass his art becomes more complex yet further distilled. This said you suspect that if you only saw his last version it would be inaccessible. What I enjoyed most about the exhibition was seeing work that was completely new to me, yet still utterly familiar.
The exhibition includes 142 artworks, from painting to print, indexical trace to sculpture. The exhibition is on at the Royal Academy of the Arts in London until 10 Dec 2017.