Last weekend we visited the vast retrospective exhibition of Jasper Johns at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
“One hopes for something resembling truth, some sense of life, even of grace, to flicker, at least, in the work” – Jasper Johns 2006. Part of this quote has been used as a subtitle for the exhibition “Something resembling truth.”
It’s been said about his work, the American flags, targets and numbers amongst them, that as he didn’t have to design them, he could move beyond that in his paintings, as these were images that the mind already knew, it gave him room to work on other deeper levels. It certainly made you want to take a closer look at his work, to explore the surfaces and textures of the paintings, and to see what has got entrenched in them, as he worked. This in turn affects what you get out of them by looking.
“I am interested in the idea of sight, in the use of the eye, I am interested in how we see and why we see the way we do.” – Jasper Johns 1969. This is not just the mechanics of seeing that he is talking about, but also at the psychological level. I must admit, it took me 10 minutes looking at various versions of the American flags to realise that the number of stars varied in them. Doh! This is probably because I had it in my head that I already knew what the Stars and Stripes looked like, so I didn’t actually have to take in what I was looking at – not a straight copy – but a lot more besides. That thick textured encaustic medium that he uses, it seems to be so versatile in it’s uses. Wonderful – perhaps I ought to investigate it.
I’ve included above a little drawing I did a couple of years ago. It is not a copy of anything that Jasper Johns did (you’d probably already guessed that), but it is the closest I have. Perhaps you could view it as a take on one of his Target paintings if you wanted, or an eye, or the centre of a sunflower, or lots of bubbles on the surface of some water. Whatever you want really, I will leave it up to you to see what you want. Your eye will see it differently to mine. The only thing I would say is that I won’t be repeating the exercise – It was so very tedious to do, but once started I forced myself to finish.
This retrospective is a big exhibition with so many great things to take in. I loved the large cast aluminium “Numbers” from 2007, that not only has the various textures of the repetitive numbers, and their backgrounds, but also within the sheen you can see newspaper text coming through. So much to look at, oh and there is the impression of a foot at the top of the picture – the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham has left his mark.
Then there is the series of cross-hatching paintings called “Between the Clock and the Bed” with the obvious reference to Edvard Munch’s painting of the same name, and the pictorial cross hatching used on the bedspread. This examines the passage of time from birth to death with you stuck somewhere in between the two. (As a complete aside, I googled inbetween as I wasn’t sure whether to put that, or in-between, or in between, and this was number 1 in the charts: “You grow old and die anyway. And then there is everything you have to endure in between/inbetween: grief, loneliness, sickness” – that was courtesy of http://www.ellstackexchange.com. Munch (and Johns?) would have loved that!)
Nearby there was a much smaller pastel drawing, basically solid black with the name TENNYSON spelt out at the bottom. Although the exhibition doesn’t mention it, this for me again links Johns with Munch, echoing the lithographs “Self-portrait with skeleton arm” or even more strikingly the portrait of “August Strindberg”, or “STINDBERG” as Munch had originally misspelt it, before correcting it at a later stage. Jasper Johns’ picture doesn’t depict anyone, instead he leaves it in the mind of the viewer to either come up with their own image, or perhaps to conjure up some of Tennyson’s poetry from the great storehouse of their memory.
I would wind up this review of a great exhibition (which I have merely touched upon), by sharing my thoughts on a series of states of the Aquatint called “Regrets” (16 of them in total) on display in the last room, which come from an old photograph of Lucien Freud commissioned by Francis Bacon. Wonderful as they are and great to see the progression, I must return to earlier rooms to see some works that depict the cosmos above us, a late Untitled painting from 2016 clearly depicts the Big Dipper or Ursa Major if you prefer. The only reason for taking you back here is for the selfish reason to finish up with 2 further sketches of my own from 2015. The first was drawn rapidly on a freezing clear morning before dawn which showed a magnificent line up of the Moon, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter all in a row. You can’t get much better than that, and you have to take the opportunity to sketch them when you can. I make no apologies for the roughness of this, it just shows the immediacy of the spectacle.
The second sketch drawn a few days later shows as it says the moon trying to break through some cloud. A failure it suggests (try again), but I can’t remember if that referred to the drawing (probably), or the moon (unlikely), or both. I think I will leave that up to you to decide. It could be that “one hopes for something, resembling truth, some sense of life, even of grace, to flicker, at least, in the work.”