Tomma Abts @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery

The Serpentine Sackler Gallery

There are two Serpentine Galleries. The original one was opened in 1970 in a one-time tea-room pavilion built in 1933, and has been putting on exhibitions by cutting-edge contemporary artists for nearly 50 years.

In 2013 a second site was opened – the Serpentine Sackler Gallery being the conversion into gallery space of a Grade II-listed, former gunpowder store, originally built in 1805. Whereas the original gallery is just south of the lake, the Sackler Gallery is over the bridge on the north side of the Serpentine.

The Serpentine Sackler Gallery consists of four display corridors set in a square around two large brick rooms which once held gunpowder, and hence are named the Powder Rooms. Artists and curators are free to utilise these rather dark mysterious spaces or not, as required.

From a practical point of view, maybe the most important thing about the two galleries is that, while they host a steady stream of exhibitions by leading contemporary artists, they are both COMPLETELY FREE.

Tomma Abts

Just opened at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery is the first ever solo exhibition by leading German woman artist, Tomma Abts. It is one of the largest collections of her work shown anywhere, bringing together 25 works from the last decade.

Feke (2013) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, New York

Feke (2013) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, New York

Abts is best known for her acrylic and oil paintings which ring an extraordinary variety of changes on a limited number of motifs and colours, all contained within a uniform canvas size of precisely 48cm by 38cm.

Why this size? Because, she explained at the press launch I attended, it allows freedom and flexibility. A little larger and you have to begin to plan and compose the work. At this size, works can be reworked, reversioned and remodelled.

The process of making

Starting with her standard-sized canvas, Abst lays down a bed of acrylic paint, lets it dry, and then begins experimenting with shapes, hand drawing in patterns, beginning to colour them with oil paint, getting a sense of their play and interaction.

There is no subject, nothing is being depicted. It is a completely open process. Guided only by intuition and a feeling for design, for what works and what doesn’t, Abts slowly builds towards a final version, painting over earlier patterns and designs, until shapes and colours crystallise into a new work.

Weie (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Collection of Danny and Lisa Goldberg

Weie (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Collection of Danny and Lisa Goldberg

The results are surprisingly varied and visually interesting. They also have a genuinely hypnotic quality.

For a start, you can get far more up-close-and-personal to Abt’s work than you can to most paintings.

  • None of them have a frame – which makes them more approachable in an obvious physical sense, but also in a more subtle aesthetic way.
  • They are not covered with a glass sheet, unlike so many paintings in so many galleries – thus you don’t get horrible reflections to put you off an immediate and full cognition of the image.
  • There is no marker on the floor a yard from the works and no officious security dude telling you to keep your distance. You can go up as close as you like. You could easily touch the surface if you wanted to, and you can certainly examine the canvas from just inches away.
  • There are no wall labels to distract you with information about the title, date, materials or anything else. Each work stands alone on the blank white wall in its own zone of attraction.
  • And the hang has been done deliberately so all the works are about five feet off the ground, at exactly head, and eye, height.

All of this has been done to encourage you to really ‘engage’ with the works. To look closely and then look again. I got chatting to one of the gallery assistants (an Italian guy) and we spent a good five minutes looking closely at Unno.

Unno (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas

Unno (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas

We noticed that:

  • The oil paint is deep. The canvas has been painted over, and then over again. This gives the surface of the canvas – seen up close – a noticeable grain and texture, and the image as a whole – seen from a little further back – a kind of richness and depth.
  • Looking close, you can see the traces of where previous designs have been painted over but left their marks. Each painting is thus a palimpsest (‘something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form’). The closer you look, the more residues and traces of earlier compositions you see – in the case of Unno you can make out wavy lines which had once existed but have been painted over to create a completely geometric image – but which nonetheless have left a ghostly residue.
  • Next, the light source. Only after really looking for a while did I realise that some of the patterns are given the illusion of depth by being painted as if casting ‘shadows’ – namely the two diagonal sticks. But only two of them. The third one doesn’t have a shadow. I presume the use of some shadow creates the illusion of depth and so the traditional painterly notion of looking into a three-dimensional space, while the unshadowed elements (the third stick and the ring) do not have shadow but sit purely on the surface. The result doesn’t clash, but adds complexity to your perception.
  • Also playing with conventions of light and depth is the way the brown circle which dominates the image is much lighter on the right, as if it is a metal ring and is being burnished by sunshine or some other light source coming from that direction. And yet, unlike the sticks, it doesn’t have a shadow.
  • Taken together, these are deliberately trompe l’oeil effects, aspects of oil painting which can be played with to deceive the mind. Having observed all these elements, if you put them back together you realise that, although they’re there, they don’t seriously disrupt or undermine the composition: they enhance and deepen it.

And all of this is before you come to consider the palette, the particular combination of colours being used – obviously dominated by the brown background, with a darker brown (though deceptively burnished metallic aspect) for the ring. And against this the three ‘sticks’ which combine pink and beige and light blue punctuated with their own brown blips to create… to create what?

Well, a distinct and powerful colour world. Just for this work. Other works have completely different palettes, for example, the acid yellow of Feke pictured at the top of this review, or the limited use of acid yellow against a much more sombre backdrop in Fiebe.

Each of these one-off colour schemes creates a specific ‘mood’, just as the patterns and shapes create a different action or motif. At one point I thought of ballet, of evenings of ballet I’ve been to where they put on three or four short works by completely different composers, each one creating its own mood, colour, music and imagine-world.

In a way Abt’s paintings are like ballets, each with a unique set, with dancers dressed in weird, abstract or geomorphic costumes, and each has its own peculiar ‘music’.

Fiebe (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection

Fiebe (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection

Geometric and organic

So are they all rather rigid and geometric?

No. A number of them, admittedly a minority of the works on show here, make a point of being ‘looser’ and more organic.

Lüür (2015) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic and oil on canvas

Lüür (2015) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic and oil on canvas

Almost all of them use the same devices of shadow to create illusory ‘space’, and the ‘burnishing’ of some lines or surfaces as if they are metallic and closer to a light source – all the tactics I noticed in Unno – but each cast in their own strongly unified colour schemes. Each with its own music of colour and composition.

In some of them the shadowing gave the elements a bit more of a physical and tactile quality. I wanted to reach into this one and tug the ribbon or wool or paper or string, and dangle and twirl it for my cat to play with.

Playing with the canvas

Having got to grips with Abt’s core or base style, you then come across works where she plays with it, evolves it, varies it.

Specifically, there are a number of works which take the painting-as-object idea further by experimenting with the shape of the canvas. Some have one corner gently rounded off. Others have a corner sharply cut off. And some of the canvases have been cut entirely in two.

Hepe (2011) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas, 2 parts. Courtesy greengrassi, London

Hepe (2011) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas, 2 parts. Courtesy greengrassi, London

The most radical experiment with form was the couple of works which she had designed and then had cast in aluminium – quite a big step away from the organic process of painting and repainting which the other works make such a virtue out of.

For me the ‘whole’ works, with their integrated colour schemes and subtle trompe l’oeil effects, with their textured surfaces and the just-visible traces of previous designs – maintain a subtle and pleasing balance between being objects you look into, absorbed by colour and composition, and objects you look at, beguiled by their obvious presence as objects-in-the-world.

I can see why Abts was drawn to experiment with her basic format – after all, why not? – and I was intrigued and pleased with some of them. But somehow I felt that the fundamental idea of a kind of never-ending sequence of 48cm by 38cm canvases itself had a kind of formal beauty. I felt a little let down by the ‘altered’ canvases.

Larger scale

And the same went for the three larger canvases which the show includes. These are all 86.5 x 63.5 cm, so nearly twice the dimensions of the ‘standard’ Abts work.

It was interesting to learn from the artist herself that this significant increase in scale required an entirely different working procedure, namely that the design had to be completely finished and composed before the work began. 86.5 x 63.5 cm turns out to be too big a scale to experiment, revise and repaint on.

Stylistically, they are recognisably the same kind of geometric patterns incorporating trompe l’oeil shadow effects as their smaller cousins – indeed the need for formal composition meant that Abts was able to select very precisely where lines would intersect or hit the canvas edge, and so all three seem a bit more vividly, even abrasively, mathematical in design.

Inte by Tomma Abts (2013) Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, Cologne

Inte by Tomma Abts (2013) Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, Cologne

But I didn’t feel they necessarily added anything to the fundamental concept which the 48cm canvases so powerfully convey. She’s interspersed the three big ones in among the regular 48cm works but, to my mind, they required seeing in a noticeably different way. I’d have preferred to see them hung next to each other, maybe with 2 or 3 others, to have made a separate section of the show, so that you could soak up all the implications of the difference in scale more thoroughly.

Conclusion

These paintings by Tomma Abts are really beautiful, absorbing, mesmeric works which offer up more and more rewards, the closer you look.

Many paintings are just paintings, but Abt’s works are like a kind of Zen training in How to Look, to look closely, and then to look again.

And the exhibition is FREE. It’s in a lovely, light, air-conditioned gallery right next to the picturesque Serpentine, with its deckchairs and its ice cream vendors.

Go, and give your mind a treat.


Related links

  • Tomma Abts continues at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery until 9 September 2018

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth’ @ the Royal Academy

‘One hopes for something resembling truth, some sense of life, even of grace, to flicker, at least, in the work.’ (Jasper Johns, 2006)

Jasper Johns was born in 1930 and is still alive and painting at the age of 87!

This enormous exhibition is a major retrospective of his entire career, the first in Britain for over 40 years, comprising over 150 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints from his first solo exhibition in New York in 1958 right up to works from 2016.

Accompanying the show is an audioguide dominated by the gravelly voice of American art critic and co-curator Roberta Bernstein, author of Jasper Johns’s catalogue raisonné and Professor Emeritus at the State University at Albany, New York, who worked as Johns’s assistant back in the day – alongside the show’s other, English, co-curator, Edith Devaney.

Although this exhibition is vast, ranges over nearly 60 years of work and shows an extraordinary diversity of subject, material and approach – it can be summarised fairly simply. The earliest work from the late 1950s and early 60s – the sort-of Pop Art use of a handful of iconic images – is by far the most striking, inspiring and best – all the rest is sort of interesting, plays with themes and techniques, lends itself to lengthy critical explication – but none of it has the electric charge of the works from the first five years or so of his career.

Flag (1958) by Jasper Johns. Encaustic on canvas. © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. Photo Jamie Stukenberg © The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, 2017

Flag (1958) by Jasper Johns. Encaustic on canvas. © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. Photo Jamie Stukenberg © The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, 2017

Things the mind already knows

By the mid-1950s the previous big art movement in America – in fact what is usually taken to be the first native art movement in America – Abstract Expressionism, had been dominating the New York art world for a decade, with its huge and dramatic depictions of the Great Artist’s Existential Emotions. (Edith Devaney who co-curated this show, also curated the Royal Academy’s massive Abstract Expressionism show of last year). Big Men like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko or Willem de Kooning wore their intense and serious emotions on their sleeves and all across their angst-filled canvases.

Johns’s work was immediately recognised as a decisive break with all that. His work is cool, detached, unemotional, distant. In the famous early works he takes everyday images – the American flag, numbers, letters, the target – and treats them to hundreds of combinations and reworkings. The most mundane of objects and signs are transformed by being painted, cast in bronze, made into prints, blown up to enormous size, brightly coloured or greyed-out, reversioned, reworked and reimagined.

Target (1961) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London. Photo © 2017 The Art Institute of Chicago/Art Resource, NY/Scala, Florence

Target (1961) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London. Photo © 2017 The Art Institute of Chicago/Art Resource, NY/Scala, Florence

Interpretations

Critics often make a comparison with the fashionable ‘alienation effect’ developed by Bertolt Brecht in his avant-garde theatre productions of the 1950s theatre in which the actors stop and address the audience or the sets are deliberately hand-made and incomplete  in order to emphasise their artificiality. All designed to undermine the silly bourgeois idea that a play is a natural and authoritative expression of ‘reality’, to show how ‘reality’ is in fact entirely a man-made construct, and so could potentially be changed.

A little more out of the way, I happen to have been reading about Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology of the 1910s and 20s. Husserl developed the idea that philosophers should ‘bracket out’ or put aside the logical, cultural and traditional words associated with our everyday experiences, feelings and concepts – in order to focus on the phenomenon itself, on the appearance of the thing as you experience it, directly, without preconceptions or cultural baggage. Phenomenology was still going strong in the 1950s when Johns began his career, in fact some of the founding texts of phenomenology were only published in English in the 1950s.

And we could mention Marcel Duchamp, the founder of conceptual art, who pioneered the idea of putting everyday objects into an art gallery in order to a) subvert the idea of a work of art b) subvert the idea of reality c) make us see them anew.

What early Johns did to targets, the American flag, numbers and letters is susceptible to interpretation along all these lines and many more.

Surfaces

In fact Johns did a lot more than paint or recreate them since, right from the start, he treated the images to extensive technical transformations. Most strikingly, Johns revived the ancient method of encaustic painting. This involves heating beeswax, tree sap and pigment and layering it onto the canvas. The coloured wax sets very fast creating a bumped and bevelled surface.

Also, if you go up close to the American flag on display here you can see not only that the surface is made of lumpy dried wax, but that the wax has been applied over a complex collage of old newspaper fragments scattered over the canvas’s surface to build up the painting’s surface. For me this links Johns’s works back to Cubist experiments just before the Great War of attaching newsprint or fabrics to the painting.

This highly tactile element of his paintings is pretty much invisible in any photographic reproductions, including the ones in this blog. So one of the major pleasures of this exhibition is experiencing the highly textured – scraped, painted, collaged, bumped – surfaces of all these works at first hand.

0 through 9 (1961) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2016

0 through 9 (1961) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2016

Above is a painting of the numbers 0 to 9 painted over each other, to create a colourful palimpsest. This is just one of the transformations Johns submitted his early iconic images to. The numbers could be written out in individual prints (in b&w or colour), written over each other, or cast into a huge aluminium grid. Same with the alphabet, which can be done in coloured grids, black and white grids, individual prints, and so on and so on.

Printmaking

This way of submitting common symbols to systematic deformations naturally suggests the notion of series – sets of works carrying out the transformations in a thorough way – a method of working that lends itself naturally to printmaking. And so over the decades Johns has proved to be one of America’s leading and most innovative printmakers (he had a central place in the recent British Museum exhibition of American printmakers).

0 Through 9 (1960) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. Photo Jamie Stukenberg/Professional Graphics Inc., Rockford, IL

0 Through 9 (1960) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. Photo Jamie Stukenberg/Professional Graphics Inc., Rockford, IL

Regrets

The exhibition is arranged by themes to bring out the consistencies of thought, approach and experimentation from right across Johns’s career. Mentioning printmaking reminds me of a wall of fifteen prints in the very last room.

In the 2012 Johns came across a photo of Lucien Freud sitting on a crummy bed in a shabby bedsit, his head in his hands. The photo itself had been crumpled up, walked on, and in fact had a large section was torn off the bottom left hand side.

Johns was captivated by the photo and subjected it to a number of his favourite techniques in order to create a series of variations. First, he doubled the size of the image by creating a left side mirroring the right side and turning the torn off bottom left into quite a big black hole in the lower centre. Then he subjected the image to various permutations and variations as a black and white print. And so the wall of prints, titled Regrets I-XV (2013).

As usual, print is just one of the media the image can be reversioned in. Johns has also made paintings of the same image, redone in a dominant field of grey, sometimes enlivened by other colours.

Regrets (2013) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. Photo © Jerry L. Thompson

Regrets (2013) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. Photo © Jerry L. Thompson

Summary of the early

The early flags, numbers and targets created an art which depicted ‘things which suggest the world rather than suggest the personality’ (as Johns put it in 1965). As such they signalled the end of Abstract Expressionism with its worship of the tortured artist and opened the door to the many new art movements which were to follow – Pop, minimalism, conceptual art – all characterised by being funny, light, ironic, emotionally cool.

But Johns was never exactly part of any of these movements. Related to them, a godfather to some, riffing off them, maybe – but he essentially ploughed his own furrow.

Painting as object

When I came across Johns in art classes at school in the 1970s what I loved most about him was his use of words shaped like industrial stencils across his (often unfinished-looking) paintings. I can’t explain why I found the combination of bits of text written onto oil paintings so exciting then, as I still do.

But it wasn’t just text from the ‘real world’ of packing cases and warehouses which Johns used. Most if not all the paintings here have blobby wax surfaces, ridges of oil paint, drips and scoops, incorporate scraps of paper, newspaper, even a whole book in one case. His whole aesthetic draws attention to the materiality of the work – highlighting the canvas frame, paint drips, encaustic, wax, collage – showing the process. One extreme example of this materiality is called Painting bitten by a man, which is precisely what it is.

This particular piece prompts some entertaining artspeak from Art historian Christina Poggi, who writes that ‘the encaustic surface simulates human skin – now congealed and reified’. The bitten painting has a ‘stark force’, even ‘rage’, says Poggi – it has ‘enacted a form of wounding’ that ‘has overstepped the boundaries of decorum.’

I suppose this was the late 50s/early 60s when Francis Bacon’s screaming popes and eviscerated humans were fashionable. Maybe it was read in that context back then. Now it has joined the vast ranks of art jokes and stunts.

Cutlery in art

Quite a few works incorporate items of cutlery. Johns was fond of incorporating or dangling spoons in front of paintings. One, Dancers on a plane, is an example of his ‘cross-hatching’ works (see below) but, if you look carefully, you can see that the wooden picture frame is lined with knives, spoons and forks.

One of my favourite works was No, a grey painting with a metal strand dangling down from the top with a stencil of the word NO at the end of it, gently shifting in the slight breeze, casting a barely moving shadow.

Words and voices

This brings us to the role of text in Johns’s work. The words and voices room explains that – true to the minimalist ethic of the early works – Johns uses text but generally very minimal amounts, most often restricted to single (short) words. Hence the works in this room with titles like ‘the’, ‘no’, ‘liar’, ‘voice’ and so on.

These abrupt one word texts reminded me of Samuel Beckett who I’ve recently been reading, so I was delighted, and not that surprised, to discover that Johns actually collaborated with Beckett on a luxury edition of a short book, Foirades/Frizzles. On top quality paper watermarked with their names are printed some typically fragmented Beckett texts, in French and in English translation, accompanied by 33 intaglio illustrations by Johns.

Like many other artists, Johns was haunted by the brief career and dazzling poetry of Hart Crane who committed suicide in 1932 at the age of 32. Periscope, Hart Crane references a key word in the poet’s masterpiece, The Bridge,

Several things are very characteristic about this painting. First of all it is grey, or shades of drab dull grey. Second, it is deliberately scrappy, unfinished, with bare canvas showing through and plenty of paint drips. Though Johns is often presented as the antidote to Abstract Expressionism, in works like this he incorporates a lot of their approach. Periscope also clarifies just how far Johns was from the completely finished, slickly commercial imagery just beginning to be produced in fine art reproductions by Andy Warhol, as his contribution to the new movement of Pop Art.

Third is the use of text – big stencilled words – here naming the colours which, presumably, should be imagined filling the relevant spaces. Whole theses have been written about the link between colour and words, and therefore the use of colour words in art sparks a flood of interpretations and discussion.

Using Husserl’s ‘phenomenological reduction’, however – ignoring the deliberate invocation of vast verbiages of learned discourse – what we actually see is a scrappy unfinished canvas daubed with broad brushstrokes and printed with big primary words. The most interesting visual element is the half circle on the right which obviously refers to the periscope of the title, but was made by a brush describing a half circle. The gesturality of this, the hand-made quantity, is declared by the imprint of a hand on the rim of the periscope. Again this is much more Abstract Expressionism with its traces of the arduous process of production than the airbrushed sleek surfaces of Pop.

I think it’s interesting. I think it raises a number of interesting ‘issues’ and ‘questions’ and ‘ideas’ about art and language – if you’re into that sort of thing. But I don’t like it. The flags, targets and numbers I can imagine having hanging round the house. Not this. It’s grey and depressing.

In the studio

Marcel Duchamp invented conceptual art when he placed a common or garden urinal in an art gallery in 1917, signed it and called it ‘art’. The art world never looked back. Johns is one of the thousands of artists since who have been fascinated by what happens if you put ordinary objects into an artistic context, by themselves or as part of larger assemblies.

This room showcases works which include the bric-a-brac of the studio stuck to the surface of the canvas – paintbrushes, rulers, colour chart, cans, even brooms.

Fool's House (1961) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017

Fool’s House (1961) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017

According to the commentary the inclusion of detritus from Johns’s studio demystifies the idea that the work of art appears ‘as if by magic’. But what fool anywhere believes that a work of art appears ‘by magic’? A problem with much criticism of modern art is the way it sets up idiotically simple-minded ‘straw men’, childlike myths or assumptions about art – only in order to knock them down. Nobody ever believed any of those myths or assumptions in the first place. Like everyone else, I pretty much know that paintings are made in studios, surrounded by vast piles of junk, brushes, oils, tins of turpentine, fag packets, booze bottles and so on.

Still, I enjoy writing in paintings so I quite like Fool’s House. I think having the words ‘broom’, ‘towel’ or ‘cup’, pointing to a broom, a towel and a cup, is funny in a Simpsons kind of way. But it’s very grey, isn’t it? As a composition it is lifted by the way the broom is allowed to remain brown and the brush straw-coloured, and by the implication that the broomhead has been used to sweep the paint.

In fact this aspect of the work is so strong that a close-up of the broomhead is used as the promotional image for the whole exhibition. I think it is a representative example of Johns’s strengths and weaknesses. Experimental, clever, including text and readymade objects, though-provoking, bold — but at the same time colourless, drab and grey. The way the RA has cropped Fool’s House makes it much more dynamic and interesting than the full work.

Royal Academy poster for Something resembling truth

Royal Academy poster for Something resembling truth

Sculptures

Two sculptures stand out. Johns kept his paintbrushes in an old coffee can, brand of Savarin. He made a minutely realistic bronze sculpture of the can and the paintbrushes and painted it to be as accurate and lifelike as possible. Edith Devaney on the audio guide calls it ‘completely delightful’.

I suppose it can be made to support a discussion of reality and artifice in art, but it is also just a sculpture of a can with paintbrushes in it. A little more interesting is that, when you google it, you discover that, as so often, Johns made it the basis of a series – in this case of paintings, setting the can against a background of his favourite cross-hatching pattern (we’re coming to that).

The second work is another ultra-realistic bronze sculpture of two beer cans. There’s a well-told story behind this work which is funny the first time you hear it, but less so the tenth time. Allegedly, Abstract Expressionist painter Willem de Kooning said of Johns’s highly competitive and successful gallery owner, Leo Castelli, that ‘you could give that son of a bitch two beer cans and he could sell them’.

Johns heard about this, thought it would make a jokey subject for a sculpture, and so produced this bronze sculpture which he painted:

And Castelli did sell them. We are told that the work was also a dig at the extremely macho culture surrounding the Abstract Expressionists, who hung around a New York bar called the Cedar Club, getting drunk, picking fights, and reeling back to their lofts to despoil innocent canvases with their emotionally charged, gestural spatters of paint.

Gay

I don’t think it’s quite mentioned anywhere, is certainly not made a big deal of, and  certainly doesn’t emerge from any of the works, but Johns was gay, for a while maintaining a relationship with fellow post-Abstract Expressionist artist Robert Rauschenberg, working with the gay composer John Cage and his lover the choreographer Merce Cunningham. All were very conscious of not being macho he-men (this was the era when Ernest Hemingway’s reputation was at its most bloated) and producing an art which was more detached, cool, intellectual, humorous, questioning.

Beer cans and boodle

For me, though, what this story of the ale cans really signifies is the role of galleries and money in the New York art world, and in the art world in general. A few years ago one of Johns’s many flag paintings sold for $36 million. I can never really get over the fundamental irony-paradox-absurdity that so many works of art which are meant to call into question this, challenge that or subvert the other – as breathlessly described in the endlessly self-promoting discourse of art critics and artists themselves – in actual fact – out here in the real world – have become a key element in a vast global market via which the Russian Mafia, Middle Eastern dictators, Chinese billionaires, and Colombian drug cartels can safely launder and store their blood money and criminal proceeds.

Art doesn’t subvert anything at all.

Take this colourful early work, Art with two balls. According to the audio guide the fact that Johns parted the canvas with two balls so that you can see the wall behind it, subverts a whole world of artistic conventions. It foregrounds that the painting is an object and not a window into the world (as if anybody needed this pointing out after 50 years of Modernism). Similarly, the way he wrote on the painting (at the bottom) calls into question the aesthetic ‘purity’ of the work of art. And so on.

Having explained all this the curator, in a rather embarrassed voice, quickly skipped over the other element, the one that gives it its title that the two balls in question have ‘an erotic element’.

Really? What can she be referring to? Could it be that this gay man was referring to the male human anatomy? Scandalous, eh? To anyone who has seen the enormous stained glass works of Gilbert and George’s anuses, faeces and penises, or Robert Mapplethorpe’s exquisite photographs of men with baseball bats stuck up their anuses, these two little wooden balls are not that subversive at all.

What amused me was that the sheer mention of a man’s balls quite obviously embarrassed the curator, much happier with words like ‘desire’ and ‘the erotic’ than with the thought of a penis and scrotum.

On the plus side, this is one of the relatively small number of really colourful paintings in the show.

Painting with Two Balls (1960) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. Photo by Jamie Stukenberg © The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, 2017

Painting with Two Balls (1960) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. Photo by Jamie Stukenberg © The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, 2017

Cross hatching

One day in the 1970s Johns saw a cross-hatching design on a car he was driving past, and was entranced. This explains an entire room made up of experiments with cross-hatching designs, loads of them, and if you search google images you’ll find hundreds more. Like the targets and numbers of the decades earlier, cross-hatching became part of his personal repertoire of imagery, likely to be found, recycled and reversioned in all his subsequent work. He worked with this motif almost exclusively from 1972 to 1983, because ‘it had all the qualities that interest me – literalness, repetitiveness, an obsessive quality, order with dumbness, and the possibility of complete lack of meaning’.

Between the Clock and the Bed (1981) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. Photo by Jamie Stukenberg © The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, 2017

Between the Clock and the Bed (1981) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. Photo by Jamie Stukenberg © The Wildenstein Plattner Institute, 2017

The audio guide explains that the title of this particular work is the same as one of the last works of Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch, he of The Scream fame.

See how the cross-hatching on the bedspread in the Munch picture is referenced in the cross-hatching in the Johns painting. Aha!

Exhaustion

By now, about 80 to 90 paintings and prints and sculptures into the exhibition, something began to happen – I began to get tired. As Oscar Wilde put it in The Picture of Dorian Gray, ‘When a man sets out to exhaust a subject, he invariably ends up by exhausting his listeners.’ Same here. The risk of such large exhibitions is visitor burn-out – you just cannot react freshly and openly to 150 works of such range and diversity.

In the cross-hatching room it occurred to me that maybe you should visit vast overview shows like this in several parts. I knew I was not enjoying the crosshatch paintings as much as the flags and the targets and the numbers. Maybe I was too arted-out to do so.

I think if the RA or someone held an exhibition titled ‘Later Jasper Johns’ which started in 1980, you could see these works as fresh and new. Taken on their own terms they are interesting exercises in pure design. The more I look at this one the more I enjoy the way the background colour changes across its surface.

But it’s not as good as the flags or targets. By ‘good’ I  mean, it doesn’t give you the same instantaneous hit or thrill.

Seasons and cycles

With the end of the show in sight we come to a wall displaying four immense paintings from the 1980s representing the four seasons. This seemed to me like a kind of exhaustion of subject matter: America is a big place with much going on and a vast superfluity of signs, symbols and visual imagery. Retreating to a subject from the Middle Ages seemed, well, very tame.

It’s a suspicion compounded when the audio guide informs you that a lot of the imagery which runs through these four huge works in fact derives from one work by Picasso, Minotaur moves house.

Specifically Johns lifts the ladder and rope motif from Picasso and it appears in all four paintings, alongside former motifs of Johns’s such as the stars and stripes, the Mona Lisa (which he referenced in numerous early works) and the rotating hand creating a grey circle which we saw in Periscope, Hart Crane.

Summer (1985) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. © Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

Summer (1985) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017. © Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

In the Fall and Winter pictures the rope snaps and the ladder breaks.

Fragments and faces

A big room contains big paintings from the 1980s which include plaster casts of parts of the body, generally arms. The audio guide explains that the three casts of arms hanging from Perilous Night were taken from the son of a friend of Johns’s over a number of years and therefore represent the process of ageing.

The use of plaster casts bolted to the surface of a painting links Perilous night back to a work of two decades earlier, Watchman.

Memory traces

In the penultimate space is a set of works which obliquely reference Johns’ childhood. This was unusual. His parents divorced when he was two. He was sent to stay with his paternal grandparents. When they died he went back to live with his mother and her new family, before being passed on to his Aunt Gladys. All this was in the Deep South in the 1930s. It must have been hard enough growing up in such a shifting environment, but one can only imagine how difficult it must have been coming to terms with his homosexuality, let alone broaching the subject with other people in that pre-war environment.

All this maybe explains the pronounced lack of the personal in all his art. He is more interested in technique (of painting making and printmaking) and objective, externally-sourced imagery. ‘I don’t want my work to be an exposure of my feelings’ he said in 1988, and in 2007 repeated that the trait he most dislikes in others is ‘the tendency toward self-description’.

(This is probably the place to mention how one of the things which came over really powerfully from the exhibition is the almost complete absence of sex, love, eroticism, affection, partners, lovers or friends in any of the works. As far as I can recall there aren’t even any depictions of human beings – humans that he knows, I mean. Sure there are some human outlines, a few plaster casts of arms – but nothing remotely like a portrait, no faces or eyes, nothing with any expression.

(The mention of Pablo Picasso in the context of The seasons paintings made me reflect how Picasso’s work explodes with human bodies and faces, including the highly sexualised bodies and faces of his numerous lovers. The gravelly voice of the American co-curator, Roberta Bernstein, took on an amusing tone of contempt and dislike as she described the impact of Picasso’s dominating ‘masculinity’ on his art – then resumed its even tones as she returned to the reassuringly sex-free, undominating feel of Johns’s work. ‘Desire’ and ‘eroticism’? Yes please – cocks and balls and male sexuality? – Nein Danke.

(This little episode on the audio guide really brought home how much of human nature is simply not present in Johns’s art. Instead, it is a gold mine for theorists and academics excited to write about painting as object, the aesthetics of the sign, and so on etc. But blood and guts and love and glory and sex and bodies and any human emotion whatsoever? Nada. Just a kind of purely aesthetic stimulus.)

Anyway, the audio guide to this little Memory traces section of seven or eight paintings makes much of a ‘return to the personal’ and autobiographical in his later work. In actual fact, you’d be hard-pressed to identify anything personal in these typically dense and semi-abstract works.

Let’s play Where’s Wally with the painting below. After noticing the ladder motif from The Seasons and the half circle at bottom right from Periscope, can you detect the outstandingly personal element in this painting?

Untitled (1992-4) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017

Untitled (1992-4) by Jasper Johns © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2017

Give up? It is, of course, the inclusion of the blue rectangle on the left, which is an architect’s floor plan of his grandparent’s house. Pretty oblique, huh? Not all that revealingly personal. In fact, almost comically abstruse and detached.

This floor plan motif appears in at least three paintings, but contrary to the audio guide, I couldn’t feel it to be a wistful expression of childhood nostalgia. Instead it came over as just another design element. Renaissance artists sketched faces, details of architecture, poses of statues into commonplace books to be recycled and reused in actual commissions. Johns is doing here what artists since the Renaissance have done – generated a repertoire of icons, images, details and motifs which he can combine, remake and remodel at will to create new works. The floorplan is just one more.

Farley breaks down

I mentioned the photograph of Lucien Freud earlier, the one which generated the series of prints titled Regrets I-XV which line the final wall of the exhibition.

Opposite them is another work based on a photograph. In 1965, after a helicopter mission in Vietnam went wrong, one of the door gunners, Lance Corporal James C. Farley – safely back at base – went into a room and slumped onto a table, weeping. It was caught in a press photo of the day by the famous Vietnam photographer, Larry Burrows. Johns takes up the caption given to the photo – Farley breaks down – and does his usual thing of submitting the image to a series of visual transformations.

The result is a small set of prints – monotypes – which use the pose as a design element.

This is the last work in the show, indicating pretty much where Johns is right now. It is bleakly, blodgily haunting. In fact, coming right at the end of the show like this, I found it one of the best works here. I stood and let it soak into me. I’d buy this – a flag, the number prints and this is what I would take away.

The absence of history

And it was only at this point, right by the exit door, that I had one last thought. Prompted by mention of the Vietnam War I realised that I had spent two hours very slowly walking past these 150 works in the biggest survey of one of America’s leading artists which covers the years from 1958 to 2017 and …. there had been no reference to any of the historical, political, cultural or technological upheavals of that period whatsoever.

Compare and contrast with the exhibition of American prints at the British Museum which was stuffed to the gills with imagery derived from the Cold War, the famous 1960s assassinations, student protests, Civil Rights, rock music, drugs and street art, AIDS, LGBT protest, feminism and Afro-American art.

All that – the past 60 years of extremely turbulent times in the world’s most powerful country – is completely absent from this huge body of work. Right at the end of the exhibition the Farley works made me realise just how much Johns is an artist’s artist – interested in exploring formal avenues, opportunities and creative possibilities in paint and print – a goldmine for art critics, exegetes and scholars, but very much an elliptical, elusive, self-contained presence.

In the opening hall the curators choose three works to represent his overall achievement and it’s no accident one of them is titled Within.

Fifty shades of grey

On the basis of these 150 works, after his initial burst of inspiration in the late 50s/early 60s, although there are some dayglo-bright works periodically, later on – specially in the cross-hatching period – overall, what I took away as the strongest visual feeling from this huge exhibition was GREY.

Smears and drips and swathes and lines and patterns and shapes of grey over half-exposed canvas.

All the stencils and spoons and plaster casts stuck to their surfaces couldn’t conceal a fundamental ashen, leaden quality in many of the paintings – Fool’s House, Watchman, Periscope. In fact I revisited the exhibition this morning and took the opportunity to note down just how many of the works are dominated by or entirely grey. Here’s some highlights; there were many more.

Jasper Johns career recap

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Johns single-handedly created an artistic breakthrough with his reworkings of everyday icons like the flag, numbers and letters.

Through the 1960s he added an array of household and studio objects and imprints and casts of the human figure.

The works of the 1970s are dominated by the use of abstract pattern, generally variations of crosshatching.

During the 1980s and 1990s Johns introduced a variety of images addressing ‘perception, memory and the passage of time’. He used imagery taken from earlier artists like Pablo Picasso and Edvard Munch.

By the early 2000s Johns had embarked on the pared-down and more conceptual Catenary series.

Later in the 2000s and into the 2010s he combined obliquely personal paintings with series based on striking images – the  Regret and Farley series.


Related links

Reviews

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

%d bloggers like this: