Hinterland of a Recluse

Jasper Johns is the J.D. Salinger of contemporary art, whose gnomic work defies easy categorisation

Michael Prodger

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.

Johns saw the photograph which was once owned by Francis Bacon in a Christie’s catalogue in 2012 and it fascinated him on a personal and sexual as well as an art historical level, so he made himself part of its story. Just as important as the figure of Freud himself are the creases that give the image an overlay of lines and planes. Painting and the personal are for him inseparable. The pictures are inscribed “Regrets, Jasper Johns”, the words he has made into a rubber stamp which he uses when replying to invitations.

Johns has been an art-world star for so long that his real merit is sometimes taken for granted (the cross-hatch pictures, for example, seem thin fare these days) so this exhibition is a welcome opportunity to reassess the how and where of his importance. Because he has adopted so many styles his work belies easy interpretation and sometimes it is too gnomic for its own good; at its best, though, his art contains a palpable sense of hinterland rich in those definable indefinables of memory, mortality and autobiography — the things indeed that “the mind already knows”.

One of the most intriguing exhibitions of recent years is the British Museum’s Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia (from September 14). The Scythians were nomadic tribesmen who flourished from 900 BC to 200 BC and roamed a vast range of central Asia from modern-day Bulgaria and Romania to China. Because they had no written language and built no permanent settlements the little that is known of them comes from mentions in the texts of other civilisations (Herodotus claimed they drank the blood of their enemies and made cloaks of their scalps: “None who attacks them can escape, and none can catch them if they desire not to be found,” he wrote) and grave goods.

The Scythians are one of the foundation peoples of Russia, and the exhibits here come from the Hermitage in St Petersburg. One of the exhibits, a gold belt buckle showing two figures under a tree mourning a dead warrior, was the first piece in Peter the Great’s new museum, the Kunstkamera, completed in 1727. Many of the items — from a piece of tattooed skin and a leather food bag containing cheese to a false beard — have emerged from the thawing Siberian permafrost that protected them for two millennia. Although some of their jewellery was made by foreigners they were accomplished metalworkers with a gift for depicting stylised animals.

Because the Scythians were nomads their possessions — which, like their horses, were buried with them — were small and portable and in the case of tents and furniture easy to disassemble, so what the exhibition lacks in grandeur it makes up for in intimate glimpses of Herodotus’s hide-and-seek warriors.

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