Anyone who has viewed and admired Johns’ iconic paintings of flags, numerals, maps and targets in a catalogue or printed on a postcard, will be jolted into reality when they see them ‘in the flesh’. Instead of flat colours, they will be surprised to see the textural qualities of some of the works; many achieved through the use of an ancient technique going back to the Egyptians known as ‘encaustic’, which involves dissolving paint into melted beeswax, and sometimes mixing it with sand. With over 150 works and spanning 60 years, this could be described in RA terms as a ‘mini-blockbuster’.
Johns emerged from the 1950s experience known as Abstract Expressionism, as promoted by Barnett Newman’s minimalist slabs of colour, Franz Kline’s stark slashes, Ad Reinhardt’s black squares, Jackson Pollock’s spatters, whirls and swirls, the powerful landscapes of Clyfford Still, Ellsworth Kelly’s geometric abstractions and the sublime colour fields of Mark Rothko. He and Robert Rauschenberg, who met in 1954, took a far more painterly approach to the everyday environment, using symbols of urban culture and objects from ordinary American life; a door, window frame, a clock, a cup, a chair, while Johns combined more graphic symbols in a way that Pop Artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol did not. They tended towards advertising motifs, magazines and comic books, although Rauschenberg was starting to use mixed media including newsprint imagery as well 3-D objects.
Johns became interested in the Cubist painter and Dadaist sculptor Marcel Duchamp, whom he met in 1959, and the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, which led to more hermetic themes that explore the relationship between language, thought and vision. All around him, artists were exploring different aspects of expression; Willem de Kooning’s quasi-figurative works, Philip Guston’s bold cartoon-like daubs, Donald Judd’s straight-line sculptures, Georgia O’Keefe’s erotic flowers and landscapes, Frank Stella’s spare paintings, Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculpture, James Rosenquist’s precision works, and, later, Jeff Koons, Jean-Michel Basquiat and ‘light artists’ Dan Flavin and James Turrell. Art historians and critics just love to categorise artists, whether it be Pop Art, Dadaist, Neo-Dadaist, Modernist and, of course Post-Modernist, Painterly Abstraction, Post-Painterly Abstraction, with such variations as Hard Edge and Colour Field.
He started out working in household paint but was unhappy with the results, so he switched to applying a noticeable texture to the canvas, with his early technique of painting with thick, dripping encaustic over a collage made from found materials, such as newspaper. The sub-title of the exhibition comes from his longer quote, ‘One hopes for something resembling truth, some sense of life, even of grace, to flicker, at least, in the work’. Two paintings that shine out of one otherwise monochrome gallery, are Painting with Two Balls, an encaustic on collage assemblage with a pair of painted balls peering out from a split in the canvas frame like a couple of eyeballs, and False Start, which gained notoriety when, in 2006, Ken Griffin, the founder and CEO of Chicago-based hedge fund Citadel, bought it from David Geffen, the founder of ‘Dreamworks’ with Steven Spielberg, for a staggering $80 million, a world record for a living artist.
In 1976, Johns partnered writer Samuel Beckett to create Foirades/Fizzles, a book containing 33 etchings, which display his colossal skills as a printmaker. At the same time, he was experimenting with abstract patterns, called ‘crosshatchings,’ which is a recurring theme and represents some of his duller works. His Between the Clock and the Bed is based on Edvard Munch’s self portrait of the same title, but is so extruded and the figure so buried, one struggles to determine the source image. The same is true of Regrets; a painting and series of drawings, depicting Lucien Freud sitting on a bed in a state of some anguish. Certain motifs make repeated appearances in his later works, like the optical illusions of the duck/rabbit, the beautiful girl/old hag and the vases/two faces, references to Picasso’s Woman in the Straw Hat, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, the Big Dipper and the American Flag, in various colourways. The Seasons comprises four large canvases, each depicting a silhouette of the artist, outlined from his own shadow, with seasonal devices, and references Picasso’s autobiographical painting Minator Moving his House, painted in 1936. The viewer has to work quite hard, even with help from the catalogue, to decypher the layers of meaning.
Although Johns himself has stated that the idea of painting an American flag came to him in a dream, critics have long disagreed over the reasons behind his decision to paint it. Why has no-one asked him? After all, he is still alive. In fact, he was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at The White House by Barack Obama in 2011. The only other artists to have been thus honoured were Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning, Georgia O’Keeffe, Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth. When he first met him, Johns said that Rauschenberg was the ‘first real artist he had met.’ Of his relationship with his onetime lover Johns, Rauschenberg recalled that ‘Jasper and I literally traded ideas. He would say, “I’ve got a terrific idea for you,” and then I’d have to find one for him’. These two, along with Cy Twombly, were a conspiracy of outsiders, three gay southerners in Manhattan in the 1950s, and each would make their own mark on Twentieth century American art. With Twombly at the Louvre in Paris in 2011, Rauschenberg earlier this year at Tate Modern, and Johns at the RA, all three have now had well-deserved major retrospectives.