The very first thing you see when you step inside the Gallery of Modern Art, eager to find out just what Jasper Johns has been up to in the last couple of decades, is a small, untitled lithograph. Tricking the eye, it shows the head of a duck that, on second glance might well be a rabbit. It’s a deft curatorial trick. This is, after all, Jasper Johns: painter of flags, targets and alphabets, maker of works that snatch away your breath with a dizzy combination of hard-nosed conceptual rigour and lush, painterly marks. So, what on earth is this sweet little duck-rabbit doing here?
Take a few more steps, and it becomes clear that, since the early 1980s, Johns has forged a new way of working. In the first room of the exhibition, which is neatly organised in thematic clumps, we find Ventriloquist (1983) and related works. The busy canvas is stuffed full of objects - pots by George Ohr, a commemorative vase that forms a double portrait of the Queen and Prince Philip - with Johns’ own flag paintings seemingly taped, in a trompe l’oeil flourish, onto the surface. And so it goes on. Later, Johns lifts lips and eyes from Dali, melts the melted faces of Picasso, and endlessly traces Holbein’s Portrait of a Young Nobleman Holding a Lemur. And all the while, Johns himself is in the thick of things, whether in the form of his long shadow cast on the surface of the Seasons series, or the family photographs that pepper the Catenary series.
It’s all a bit of a shock to the system, not least because - and this is not an easy thing to say - much of the work here smacks of failure. Once the game of spot the reference is done, there’s nothing left but an ugly image. Worse still, when Johns reigns in the excesses of his new method - in the awkward mystery of the Green Angel series, with a pair of ink-on-plastic reworkings of Holbein, or with the loop of string that hangs from the frame of Catenary (1998) - he calls to mind his old self, with all his old strength.
Johns’ earlier work asked questions that were born of the artist’s self-imposed distance from the act of making work. By attempting to absent himself from his paintings, he drew viewers in, forcing them to ask themselves questions about the nature of things, and the nature of their representation; questions that served to put the work back into the world from which it was drawn. (It is difficult, for example, to see the American flag fly after seeing Johns’ paintings of it without finding it a weak, unsatisfying copy of a Johns’ original copy.) Now that he has folded himself into his work, and wrapped himself in the flag of his own past practice and inspiration, Johns no longer draws in his audience while bleeding the work back into the world. Instead, much here exists in a sealed container fashioned from Johns’ life and his work. Where in the past his adoption of pre-existing images prompted a wonderful, endlessly recursive dialogue, they now seem ungenerous and didactic, puzzles that can be solved.
This review was first published in The Sunday Herald in July 2004.