I'm off work this week and all over the country - on Saturday it was London to catch up with some old school friends, it was also the opening of the Jasper Johns exhibition at the Royal Acadamy. I've loved Johns iconic works from the 1950's and '60's ever since I first encountered them, so this exhibition was a must see affair.
None of the friends I was meeting shared quite the same enthusiasm, and in fairness an exhibition perhaps isn't the best way to catch up with people you haven't seen for a decade or so, especially if it's the kind of crush that the RA normally entertains on a Saturday afternoon. So I got an early train and arrived a few minutes after opening, which turns out to be a great time to get there because it was as quiet as I've ever seen it.
This is a major retrospective that covers all of Johns career - I didn't actually realise he was still alive, which is shameful, but understandable given that the really good stuff all seems to date from the 50's and 60's, and focuses on images of 'things the mind already knows'. The flags especially maintain their freshness and power. Looking at them close to was an unexpectedly emotional experience.
As a symbol a flag comes loaded with all sorts of significance anyway, the American flag maybe more so than many, and particularly at the moment. It is something the mind already knows, and because of that, something not always paid much attention. Stopping to look at a painted version makes you both appreciate how the image has been physically painted, and also to start thinking about the layers of meaning we attach to it.
The thing that I've always loved about Johns work is the feeling that he really loves paint and colour, and that's something that really came home to me here. Amongst the later works the series I really liked are the Catenary paintings (a catenary is the curve a cable makes hanging under its own weight, suspended only by its ends). These are mostly grey canvases with lengths of string suspended from attached wings. The paint echos the curve of the string, and the string casts shadows on the canvas. The effect is much more interesting than that description sounds, I promise.
Over all it's a great exhibition, there are enough of the iconic pieces to make you feel you've got your money's worth, the sketches, preparatory works, paintings, and sculptures, show just how very good a draughstman and painter Johns actually is, there's room to explore his ideas and the themes he keeps coming back to. The later work isn't as interesting as the early stuff, but it gives his whole career context - and I'm really pleased I've seen it.