Jasper Johns: Cap­tur­ing the Flag

Paint­ing the Amer­i­can dream.

Vocable (All English) - - Édito | Sommaire - MICHAEL GLOVER

He paints ob­jects that we think we know: flags, light bulbs, maps...

Jasper Johns is a liv­ing leg­end. Still paint­ing at eighty-seven, he is one of the most well known artists world­wide. Along with Andy Warhol, he com­pletely trans­formed the art world in the 1950s, by pre­sent­ing ev­ery­day im­ages in a way that made them ob­jects of con­tem­pla­tion. A ma­jor ret­ro­spec­tive of his work is be­ing held in Lon­don un­til 10 De­cem­ber.


ex­pres­sion­ism hit New York with a great, arms-flung-out-in-alldirec­tions up­roar­i­ous­ness in the 1950s. Its noisy re­bel­lious­ness seemed the very epit­ome of the new. Paris was top­pled from its pedestal. Paris be­came passé, even sepul­chral. But what came af­ter all the wild ges­tur­ings of a Pol­lock? Some­thing a lit­tle qui­eter, to be sure. The art of the young Jasper Johns was a much less splashy af­fair al­to­gether, much more ten­ta­tive and long-term in its dogged, year-on-year en­gage­ment with its themes.

2. Johns had his first solo show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York in 1958, and this ret- rospec­tive at the Royal Acad­emy in Lon­don, or­gan­ised by theme (with the oc­ca­sional nod in the di­rec­tion of chronol­ogy), takes us from then un­til al­most now – the last work is dated 2016. Johns’ con­cern has been to look hard at ev­ery­thing that we take for granted – in­clud­ing the na­ture of what we choose to call a paint­ing. What kind of thing is this that you are look­ing at? he is al­ways invit­ing us to ask. The ob­jects some­times feel so self-con­scious that they might even be in­clined to blush.

3. He paints ob­jects that we think we know – flags, tar­gets, light bulbs, nu­mer­als, maps – be­cause fa­mil­iar­ity breeds in­dif­fer­ence, and John’s en­ter­prise is to shake us out of that in­dif­fer­ence, to cleanse us of that jaded way of look­ing. What ex­actly is it to know a thing, to wrest mean­ing and sig­nif­i­cance from an ev­ery­day ob­ject? How do you pass from in­ert con­tem­pla­tion to awe-struck re­gard? What is it that raises up an ev­ery­day ob­ject un­til it is

trans­formed into a sym­bol that binds us and unites us – such as the Amer­i­can flag? He draws at­ten­tion to the extraordinary na­ture of the or­di­nary by remaking and reimag­in­ing, over and over, down the years.

4. His most favoured medium is en­caus­tic, with el­e­ments of col­lage. With en­caus­tic you can build up a tacky, al­most waxy thick­ness of sur­face that prac­ti­cally hums. The ef­fect is un­canny – we are look­ing at painted sim­u­lacra of ob­jects that we think we know, but they are not quite present to us in the way that a sin­gle ex­am­ple of that same ob­ject would be present. They seem, even as we gaze, to float free of them­selves, to set them­selves above and apart from the very idea they have been cre­ated to evoke. 5. All very se­ri­ous? Yes and no. Johns has hu­mour too. He scours his stu­dio for the props of his mak­ing process – paint cans, brushes, solder­ing wire, a kitchen knife – and then he at­taches them to the can­vas, build­ing out the sur­face un­til two things hap­pen: the paint­ing edges in the di­rec­tion of fi­nal­ity of sculp­ture even as it seems to be re­mind­ing us that this ob­ject we are con­tem­plat­ing will for­ever be in the mak­ing. He uses words – a word as la­conic as NO – to in­ter­rupt what the brush is do­ing – the word hangs free of the painted sur­face – as if to crack a joke at the ex­pense of the con­tem­pla­tive si­lence of the two-di­men­sional ob­ject. Jasper Johns is the wil­i­est of old trick­sters.

Flag, 1958. (Stuken­berg/ The Wilden­stein Plat­tner In­sti­tute)

(The Art In­sti­tute of Chicago)

Tar­get, 1961

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