The flag, the flag… It’s such a familiar symbol to all Americans, seen fluttering outside homes and hanging at the front of every school classroom for children to ‘pledge allegiance’. And how clever of Jasper Johns to take the stars and the stripes and turn the symbol into a piece of abstract art which also celebrates the surface texture of encaustic (a mix of molten wax with pigment) and mingles it with bits of newspaper collage to create a beguiling and mesmerising artwork. His aim was to jolt the viewer out of the stupor of familiarity and make the image into a piece which must be really looked at.
He did the same with numbers and letters, creating hundreds of canvases which took the familiar symbols and layered and subverted them into further abstract shapes. I really enjoyed seeing examples of this early work. Most of these pictures were made in the 1950s and 60s when he was living and working in New York. He continued to revisit the motif of the flag throughout his career.
His longevity is demonstrated by the vast amount of work from every decade which fills the Main Galleries at the Royal Academy of Art. Always interested in texture and gesture the canvases convey an artist of great energy eager to explore just how far he can manipulate and test the medium of oil, encaustic, charcoal, print and, rather later, introduce objects into his works. Once he finds a style he seems to run with it until it is quite exhausted. Throughout the exhibition there is a feeling of recycling, repetition and revisiting of early ideas. He absorbs and interprets the work of other artists, too. The later works don’t carry the ‘kick’ of the early paintings but it’s still fascinating to see the evolution of an innovative artist who has been one of the great artistic influences of the twentieth century.