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Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth’

As the Royal Academy presents the first major British survey of Johns’ work in 40 years, its co-curator Edith Devaney discusses the genesis of the exhibition, the new painting prepared for the show by the 87-year-old artist, and the UK's renewed interest in post-war American art

Jasper Johns is widely considered one of the 20th century’s most important artists. His paintings, sculptures and drawings of everyday symbols — the American flag, targets, numbers and letters — positioned him in opposition to the Abstract Expressionists who dominated the American art scene in the 1950s, whose canvases stressed the gestural and the self-expressive. Johns, instead, sought to foreground those overfamiliar elements of everyday life that were ‘seen but not looked at, not examined’.

Born in 1930 in Georgia, Johns moved to New York in 1953. There his circle would include the artist Robert Rauschenberg, composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Johns made his first flag painting in 1954; in 1958, gallerist Leo Castelli offered him his first solo exhibition. Nearly all of the paintings in that show sold — including three to the Museum of Modern Art — and his star was on the rise.

Over the next half-century, Johns developed a reputation as an exceptional draughtsman and printmaker, his work continually re-examining the motifs he first took up in the 1950s. Awarded honorary membership of the Royal Academy in 1989, the now 87-year-old Johns continues to make art.

Johns’ work has seldom been exhibited in the UK. Seeking to rectify this, the Royal Academy now presents Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth.’  This major survey, on view from 23 September to 10 December, comprises more than 150 works including sculpture, drawings and prints, and spans over 60 years from Johns’ early career to the present. Produced in collaboration with The Broad museum in Los Angeles, where it will travel in 2018, the exhibition features work from international private collections and a new painting by the artist. We spoke to co-curator Edith Devaney to find out more.

‘The later work is brilliant, and there was just this sense that no one has seen it, or people haven’t been talking about it enough’

This is the first comprehensive survey of Johns’ work to be held in the UK in almost half a century. How did the idea for this show come about, and why did you decide now was the right time to take another look?

Edith Devaney: ‘I’d had the idea to do a big Jasper Johns show for a number of years. In 2013 I finally got the green light from the exhibitions committee here to approach him about it.  

‘I had an initial meeting with Jasper about my ambitions for the exhibition, and started talking to potential lenders, working out what I wanted to show and how I wanted to lay it out. Then I got Roberta Bernstein on board as co-curator. Roberta [author of Jasper Johns’s catalogue raisonné, and the forthcoming monograph Jasper Johns: Redo an Eye] is an academic [Professor Emeritus at the State University at Albany, New York] who has written extensively on Johns, so it was a great partnership.

‘One of the motivations for me personally was to showcase his later work. Of course I love his early work and find it fascinating. But the later work is brilliant, and there was just this sense that no one has seen it, or people haven’t been talking about it enough. I had a real desire to bring it to London.’

Why do you think the later works haven’t received more attention?

ED: ‘I think the problem was that he shot to fame really early — he was 28 when Leo Castelli offered him his first show, in New York, and his flags, targets and numbers became iconic. The concept behind them is extraordinary: that notion of looking at things that we know but don’t see properly. Really questioning the idea of truth.

Jasper Johns, 0 through 9, 1961. Oil on canvas. 137.2 x 104.8 cm (c) Jasper Johns  VAGA, New York  DACS, London 2016

Jasper Johns, 0 through 9, 1961. Oil on canvas. 137.2 x 104.8 cm (c) Jasper Johns / VAGA, New York / DACS, London 2016

‘Those works are just as arresting today as they were in the 1950s and 1960s. But because there was such a spotlight on them, because there’s such a history around Castelli finding him, and Johns bursting onto the scene at a time when Abstract Expressionism was at its height, in a way, it’s taken attention away from the rest of his career. But the rest of his career has been equally fascinating.

‘There’s an attempt in this exhibition to put all of his work in context. He never deviated from his early interest in interrogating how we see and think about things, how we look at things.’

What efforts have you made in this show to contextualise the later work?

ED: ‘I’ve presented his work in the round: the early work meets the later work, and you can see that his practice is a sort of continuum. The intellectual capacity and interest that he had right at the start gathered force, and is still very present in the later pieces. We don’t call this show a traditional retrospective — it’s rather a thematic survey.


‘In the end, when lenders realised the importance of the exhibition, and Johns’ own enthusiasm for it, they became more willing to part with their works’

‘Organising the work into themes has given us a wonderful sense about how he thinks. There’s a chapter on “fragments and faces”, which examines how he always represents the human form in a fragmented way. Another gallery looks at time and transience, where you’ve got the crosshatched works dealing with the passage of time. There’s a chapter on language, which takes up his examination of the alphabet and communication. And of course there’s the theme of the painting as object. He’s very interested in Duchamp, very interested in Freud. All of those influences come to bear in his work. It’s a very psychological exhibition — he reveals a lot about himself in his works.’

The show includes a painting Johns completed as recently as December 2016. Was he involved in the planning of it?

ED: ‘Jasper was very interested in how we were going to present the exhibition, and he became quite involved in its preparation, which of course is what we wanted. We’re an academy; we love working with living artists. It was a very smooth working relationship — Jasper is above all very respectful of other people’s jobs.

‘When Roberta and I got to the stage of organising the works into chapters, we wanted to show it to Jasper. So I flat-packed a model and brought it over to his studio. We spent a day looking at the model, and Jasper was able to make incredibly helpful suggestions about how to proceed. He also got very engaged in the catalogue — he wanted to read all the essays. He had comments on those; he was very interested in the design.’

Jasper Johns, Untitled, 1992-94. Encaustic on canvas. 199.4 x 300.7 cm. The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection © Jasper Johns  VAGA, New York  DACS, London 2017

Jasper Johns, Untitled, 1992-94. Encaustic on canvas. 199.4 x 300.7 cm. The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection © Jasper Johns / VAGA, New York / DACS, London 2017

This is quite a large show. Were there any challenges in sourcing the pieces?

ED: ‘It’s not easy work to get hold of, I have to be honest. It’s very tough. And a lot of the early work — particularly the early work painted in encaustic [a wax-based medium] — is very fragile, so not in a condition to travel. But I think we’ve done pretty well. In the end, when lenders realised the importance of the exhibition, the importance of having a focus on Johns at the moment, and Johns’ own enthusiasm for it, they became more willing to part with their works.’

Why do you think Johns hasn't been more frequently exhibited in the UK or Europe? And what do you hope viewers will take away from the show?

ED: ‘It’s a really interesting question. The same could be asked about Abstract Expressionism: why hadn’t we seen a significant exhibition here for 40 or 50 years [Devaney also curated the RA’s 2016 Abstract Expressionism exhibition]? Happily, there does really seem to be a renewed interest in post-war American artists in the UK.

‘Johns is so well known in America, so well respected — and justifiably. I think he’s arguably the greatest living artist of our time. Why hasn’t he been more frequently shown in London? I don’t know — but we’re addressing that now.

Jasper Johns, Regrets, 2013. Oil on canvas. 127 x 182.9 cm. Collection of Marguerite Steed Hoffman © Jasper Johns  VAGA, New York  DACS, London 2017. Photo © Jerry L. Thompson

Jasper Johns, Regrets, 2013. Oil on canvas. 127 x 182.9 cm. Collection of Marguerite Steed Hoffman © Jasper Johns / VAGA, New York / DACS, London 2017. Photo: © Jerry L. Thompson

‘I hope that viewers will discover how important Johns is in the canon of contemporary art. He was a dominant figure in the 20th century; he’s also dominating the 21st. He’s got a real depth of interrogation of what the picture is. He’s really looking at the human condition as well: how we perceive things, how memory affects us, how ageing affects us. But there’s also his technical brilliance. He’s able to articulate universal themes with extraordinary power across a range of mediums, from printmaking to painting and sculpture. There’s nothing that he hasn’t mastered.’

Do you think Johns will come to see the show?

ED: ‘I think he’s curious about it — I’ve been sending him photographs throughout the installation period. He’s 87 and has never liked travelling, though, so who knows? But I think he’s very pleased that the show is happening.’