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Contemporary Art

Tim Marlow on Jasper Johns at London’s Royal Academy

As seven works on paper by Jasper Johns from the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Collection come to auction at Sotheby’s, we asked Tim Marlow to share his insights on the Royal Academy’s current retrospective devoted to the great American artist.

For an artist so apparently familiar, Jasper Johns’s work still surprises with its erudition and wit. The references and allusions in Racing Thoughts (1983), for example, encompass poetry, personal history, and art ancient and modern while Painting Bitten by a Man (1961) and No (1968/9) are filled with gleeful irreverence.

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RACING THOUGHTS (1983). WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, NEW YORK © JASPER JOHNS / VAGA, NEW YORK / DACS, LONDON 2017.

These works are among the highlights of Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth,’ a substantial retrospective at London’s Royal Academy of Arts (RA). Assembled with input from the artist, and under the direction of leading Johns scholar Roberta Bernstein and curator Edith Devaney, this is the first notable UK exhibition of the artist’s work in 40 years. This is an anomaly that Tim Marlow, Artistic Director of the RA, felt begged to be addressed: “We were very keen to make sure that we made a major show while Johns was alive, and with some kind of dialogue with him.”

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INSTALLATION VIEW WITH FOOL’S HOUSE (1962) AT LEFT.

Marlow suggests that it is perhaps the timelessness of Johns’s work – the extended, insistent focus – that has seen him receive less attention in London than contemporaries such as Robert Rauschenberg. “I think that, without using one to define the other, Rauschenberg, although he’s dead, still feels an artist of resonance or relevance to young artists. Johns, very much alive and working, feels like a classic Modern master.”

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INSTALLATION VIEW WITH FLAG (1958). PRIVATE COLLECTION © JASPER JOHNS / VAGA, NEW YORK / DACS, LONDON 2017. PHOTO: JAMIE STUKENBERG © THE WILDENSTEIN PLATTNER INSTITUTE, 2017.

The exhibition is structured to reflect the artist’s decades-long engagement with particular areas of enquiry. Among the eight subsections are galleries devoted to the exploration of the painting as object; to the passage of time; and to the familiar objects – flags, targets and maps – that Johns termed “things the mind already knows.”

“So much of what Johns explores, the various avenues and themes, takes place in a very fertile period of about a decade, and then it’s as if he’s able to go back and explore in greater depth and push them in different direction,” says Marlow. “Collectors and curators want things neatly defined – when does that series begin and when does it end? People are not always like that. They don’t announce the beginning of something and the end of something – they have the right to return to it – and so it is with Johns.”

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The show celebrates Johns’s non-hierarchical use of media: there are works of sculpture in dull grey Sculp-metal as well as in painted bronze; encaustic paintings that grip scraps of paper collage; skin prints made with charcoal on paper. “Often if you show an artist like Johns, you put all the paintings in a room: you might dot some sculptures in there, but the drawings and prints are always put in a separate room, like a laboratory,” says Marlow. “Johns works through subject matter, themes, explorations concurrently across media: there’s a fluidity.”

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INSTALLATION VIEW WITH THE SEASONS (1985).

In person, Johns is famously discreet and self-protective, but Marlow sees a profound emotional engagement in his work, and a mounting introspection, particularly in the intensely mnemonic The Seasons (1987) and the recent series Regrets (which carries forms derived from a photograph Francis Bacon commissioned of Lucian Freud).

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“I think he’s an immensely sophisticated artist: there is an evolutionary aspect to the career. He does push at different frameworks and boundaries but actually he seems, in the past 30 years, to have gone deeper into himself, and into the philosophical and poetic ruminations on what art is and what it can be in the world,” says Marlow. “The subtlety, as well as the complexity, is the most rewarding aspect. Look hard at a Johns and think a little beneath the surface and it’s extraordinarily rich: powerful, layered, complex.”

Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth’ is on view at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, through 10 December 2017

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