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“Flag”, 1958, by Jasper Johns (©Jasper Johns/DACS, London 2017)

The American artist Jasper Johns is now 87 years old and the last of his generation. He held his first solo show in New York in 1958 and his work both spans and touches on the two great movements of post-war American art, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, while also pointing the way towards Conceptual Art. In the 1950s he was part of a love triangle with Robert Rauschenberg (who died in 2008) and Cy Twombly (died in 2011). Although Johns remains a living link to the likes of De Kooning, Rothko, Warhol and Lichtenstein he is a largely silent one. He is the J.D. Salinger of art, rarely giving interviews and living reclusively in rural Connecticut and the tiny Caribbean island of St Martin.

Johns’s breakthrough came early, in 1954, when he painted Flag — an image of the Stars and Stripes made from collaged newspaper which he painted over in encaustic to give a thickly textured surface. He has consistently refused to elaborate on the image: when asked why he painted it he simply responded that the idea came to him in a dream. Flag was the first of a series of works in which he took instantly recognisable symbols — maps, archery targets, numbers — and turned these “things the mind already knows” into stand-alone images. Although they are not abstract they have no real subject or meaning but offer instead richly worked surfaces. They stand neither as Abstract Expressionist notations of artistic individuality nor as Pop Art critiques of commercial imagery: they are instead self-contained visual objects.

Johns is the subject of a major retrospective at the Royal Academy (he is an honorary academician). Something Resembling Truth (from September 23) comprises more than 150 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints and covers six decades of work. The title is Johns’s own: “One hopes for something resembling truth, some sense of life, even of grace, to flicker, at least in the work,” he said, although he didn’t expand on what that truth might be.

That elusiveness helps explain the restless experimentation of his art, something he shared with his lover Rauschenberg. If the works of the 1950s take familiar symbols as their basis he went on to expunge colour from his paintings creating a series of monotones, both abstracts and also depicting the bric-a-brac of his studio — the tin can that held his brushes, stretchers waiting for a canvas, rags and brooms. He developed too a style of cross-hatching that he used to make paintings about pattern and optics.

One of the traits of Johns’s career has been his collaboration with other artists, notably the choreographer Merce Cunningham and his partner John Cage, with whom he started the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts in 1963. In the 1970s he worked with Samuel Beckett, using text fragments by the writer in both paintings and prints. In the 1990s he started embedding tracings after Grünewald, Picasso and Munch into his work. Regrets, meanwhile, a series of pieces from 2013, was based on a torn and paint-spattered photograph of Lucian Freud sitting twisted and anguished on a bed, taken by the Soho habitué John Deakin.

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