Review: Jasper Johns, Royal Academy ‘Full of Paintings, Lacking in Emotion’

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I don’t doubt that you will read far more enthusiastic reviews of the vast Jasper Johns survey than this one. And I do not doubt the immense effort that has been made by the curating team at the RA to pull together so many works from such an influential artist (a whopping 150 in total). However, I cannot say that the final result sparked much within me. Overall, I found the galleries rather flat, the works impersonal, and the artist coming off second in comparison with the terrific retrospective of his peer, Robert Rauschenberg, which ran at Tate Modern last year.

Impersonal is a key word for Jasper Johns – indeed, the man himself says this is a specific aim of his in his work; to remove the personal and compel us to look anew at what we always overlook. And, certainly, this starts of well with his famous paintings of the American flag, maps and numbers opening the show.

(Note: for reasons I can’t quite get my head around, the RA is really pushy about which way you walk through these galleries with one-way notices up all over the place.)

Anyway. I digress.

The flag. It really is an impressive work, or, rather works. The emotion maybe comes from the fact that the American flag is such a provocative symbol, with it arousing strong emotions in people all over the world. Many are passionate about it; many are passionate in their loathing of it. Perhaps that is true of all flags – national pride and nationalism are rarely far apart – but the American flag must be at the top of that tree.

Looking at the flag, well, it sounds odd, but Jasper has achieved what he set out – we are finally examining closely a symbol we all know so well but perhaps have not spent any time actually looking at. I had the same response to his endless numbers, whether they be written over each other in mesmeric drawings, or set out like font in sequences, one after the other, on shimmering bronze slabs.

But after such a bold start, both the show and the works seem to lose strength.

Jasper Johns is considered to be the artist who carried Duchamp’s legacy into paintings, so perhaps it’s no surprise that as I’m no fan of Duchamp, I struggle to be a fan of Jasper Johns. I get the importance of what he is trying to do – and challenging conventional thought is necessary, of course – but I can’t seem to care about it.

Brooms fixed to the centre of great canvases washed with grey; monochrome paintings with ‘Red’ ‘Yellow’ ‘Blue’ written on them; chairs and dismembered limbs fixed to artworks smothered with grey (again) and blocks of red, yellow, and blue; china bowls stuck on to great slabs of black… I was really struggling to get an “in.” I appreciate the need to rupture orthodoxy but Jasper’s works lack energy for me. Though Rauschenberg’s assemblages had plenty of composite parts, they hang together as a single piece perfectly. There’s a harmony and cohesion to his works which I don’t get from Jasper’s. Here, the finished works jar, the composite parts not working together. And, I say it again, they really are quite flat.

Another bugbear I have with this show is that it is arranged thematically. Sometimes this can work, especially if only a short period of time is covered. But I’m not crazy about that approach when there are fifty years of artworks on display. We end up with paintings from the 1950s hanging alongside ones from the past decade. And though they may be connected by theme, we are completely different people at sixty than we are at twenty, and all that has been considered and developed in this time for Jasper is lost by not examining the journey that has been taken to get from one art work to the next.

Take, for example, the respective explosions of colour that define both Nines, 2006, and False Start, 1959. The two paintings are hung side by side, and the former has more defined sections of colour than the riotous mix in the other. But what is it that changed for Jasper in the almost fifty years between painting these works? I can’t get an insight into the changes and development in thinking, and I would have liked to.

In the later works, and the later galleries, there is an encroaching sense of the personal finally coming into play, especially in the collection of works titles, Seasons, 1987, where a silhouetted figure can be made out in each of the four paintings that look at the passage of time, and Regrets, 2013, a recent series of drawings. But, again, it was hard to get much out of these. Take Seasons, for example – there is nothing insightful or revelatory about leaves or snowmen or spring rainfalls. Where is the depth?

But, really, who am I to say what’s right or what’s wrong? Jasper Johns is considered to be one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century and I am just a lowly blogger. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’m just not clever enough to get this. But for those, like me, who were wowed by the brilliance of Rauschenberg, this show may well be a disappointment.

Where Rauschenberg’s ideas were thought through, Jasper’s seem unfinished in comparison. And where Rauschenberg’s works, complicated as they are, are coherent and cohesive, Jasper’s seem half-hearted and almost works in progress. Maybe that’s the point but, either way, whisper it quietly, Rauschenberg was the better artist and this show, coming so close as it does after that great retrospective, may well not do Jasper Johns any favours.

Royal Academy of Arts, London, to December 10, 2017
Tickets from £17 (without donation). Concessions available.

See more photos from the exhibition in my Facebook album. 

Image credits:
1. Jasper Johns, Flag, 1958. Encaustic on canvas. 105.1 x 154.9 cm. Private collection © Jasper Johns / VAGA, New York / DACS, London 2017. Photo: Jamie Stukenberg © The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, 2017
2. Jasper Johns, 0 Through 9, 1960. Charcoal on paper. 73 x 58cm. Collection of the artist © Jasper Johns / VAGA, New York / DACS, London 2017. Photo: Jamie Stukenberg / Professional Graphics Inc., Rockford, IL
3. Jasper Johns, Fool’s House, 1961–62. Oil on canvas with broom, sculptural towel, stretcher and cup, 182.9 x 92.5 x 11.4 cm. Private collection © Jasper Johns / VAGA, New York / DACS, London 2017
4. Jasper Johns, Summer, 1985. Encaustic on canvas. 190.5 x 127 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York © Jasper Johns / VAGA, New York / DACS, London 2017. © 2017. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala, Florence

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