Jasper Johns shows us what mastery means

By Martin Vogel


I was somewhat nonplussed by the Royal Academy’s Jasper Johns exhibition, which ends this weekend. His renowned work is undoubtedly pleasing. Partly this a function of his portrayal of the familiar – flags, numbers, targets – which he renders unfamiliar through multiple repetitions and subtle variations. But more, it’s to do with how his repetition strips out meaning and defies interpretation. So you’re drawn into his artistry: the texture of his paintings of the flags, the attractive form of his numbers.


Waldemar Januszczak expresses this well:

“In his Numbers pieces, all he does is find different ways to present the count from zero to nine in paintings, sculptures and wall reliefs. Conceptually, there is a tiny pleasure to be had by completing the sequence in your head, but the only way a painting of numbers from zero to nine can be truly worthwhile is if the actual mark-making — the touch of the artist — is persuasive and magnetic. And it is here that Johns scores, and keeps scoring. From start to finish, his pale, feathery, slightly nervous touch is the star of the show. Like a great soprano who can make the recital of a shopping list sound Mozartian, his touch is transformative.”

As my friend Anno observed, Johns’ work shows a graphic designer’s eye for presenting pleasing images. But there’s also the craft of an obsessive artist reworking his subjects repetitively over decades.

Not all the work resists meaning. Philosophical themes emerge: references to Wittgenstein and language are realised through the portrayal of words – e.g. the word blue presented in red. There’s also a collaboration with Samuel Beckett, again juxtaposing word and image. But I found this stuff less interesting than the sheer mastery displayed in the repetition of the familiar. The curators’ notes keep reaching for meaning. But in the end, it’s the artistry beyond intellectual content that captivates.

Rachel Campbell-Johnston reaches the same conclusion

“You can’t help but be struck by the tenacity of Johns’s project. He prods at elusive and many-layered ideas with untiring persistence, turning them over and over and opening them up. But what may take you by surprise — especially if you know his work mainly from reproductions — is the atmospheric intensity of it. The surfaces of his paintings are so richly worked. His drawings, so densely intricate, lure you inward.”

We sometimes talk glibly about mastery, as if we can bolt it onto our capability like upgrading a computer. Jasper Johns demonstrates what mastery entails: not just practice, but exploring the depths and boundaries of one’s field; doggedly ploughing one’s own furrow to define your distinctive place in the world.