A discussion on truths at Jasper Johns show

American flags are a common motif in the works of Jasper Johns (above), widely regarded as America's foremost living artist.
American flags are a common motif in the works of Jasper Johns (above), widely regarded as America's foremost living artist.PHOTO: JASPER JOHNS/ INSTAGRAM

LOS ANGELES • Not long ago, Jasper Johns, who is now 87 and regarded as America's foremost living artist, was reminiscing about his childhood in South Carolina.

One day, when he was in second grade, a classmate misbehaved. As the teacher reached for a ruler to paddle her, the classmate grabbed it and broke it in half.

The class was stunned. "It was absolutely wonderful," Johns said.

A ruler, an instrument of the measured life, had become an accessory to rebellion.

Rulers also happen to be affixed to several paintings at the Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth retrospective in The Broad museum in Los Angeles.

Did the anecdote about the ruler lodge deeply in his brain? Johns himself is loath to offer biographical interpretations of his work - or any interpretations, for that matter.

He once joked that of the dozens of books written about his art, his favourite one was in Japanese - he could not understand it.

The Broad show, which remains through May 13, covers six decades.

Visitors come to see how the American flags and targets that remain Johns' most acclaimed motifs are no more persistent than other themes, including forks and spoons, images of the human body broken into fragments and the drama of a muted self unable to express its needs.

Johns does not have faith in memory, insisting it is less likely to disclose truths than twist them.

One thing that he understood at an early age is that language and truth are not the same.

Growing up in the South, at a time when its citizens saw no contradiction between the cultivation of perfect table manners and the barbarism of segregation, he was well aware that people were not always logical.

Born in 1930, he was the only son of an alcoholic farmer and a mother accustomed to hardship. His parents divorced in 1933, by which time he had been sent to live with his paternal grandfather, the first of many childhood dislocations.

"I was a good guest," he said, without rancour. "I was always a guest."

Asked if he plans to travel to Los Angeles to see his new show, he replied: "I am not going anywhere."

His friends said he prefers to wake up in his own bed in Sharon, Connecticut, amid the familiarity of his country estate, to eat tomatoes and lettuce from his garden, and know that he is no longer a guest.

In person, Johns is still a formidable presence, 1.8m tall, with a large, craggy face and watchful eyes. He describes his health as moderate to fair and you can tell that his knees torment him when he stands up.

On most days, he can be found in his studio, tailed by his dog Dougal, a gift from a friend.

Indeed, Johns has no shortage of devoted friends who have known him for decades. Nonetheless, his pals - much like his art viewers - can be kept on edge by his remove.

Nearly everyone agrees that certain topics reliably engage him, such as gardening and cooking. But attempts to discuss the meaning of his work will bring on silence.

Johns, who lives alone, made news last autumn when it was revealed that his property will eventually serve as an artists' retreat.

It is hardly his first philanthropic undertaking. In 1963, he and musician John Cage co-founded the Foundation for Contemporary Arts.

Just last month, it announced its latest grant recipients, some 19 artists who will each receive US$40,000 (S$52,500).

Johns is predictably tight-lipped about his philanthropy, which has always focused on supporting younger artists.

The main reason he agreed to cooperate with The Broad on the exhibition, he said, is the chance it represents to reach young viewers. "I like that the show is free," he added.

Not quite true. The Broad offers free access to its third-floor galleries, which house the permanent collection, but charges for "special exhibitions".

"I don't think I knew that," Johns said, appearing perturbed. "I didn't register that because I was told that it was a free museum. I have always loved that idea. Haven't you seen my Free Leonardo button?

"I sometimes wear it."

British artist Richard Hamilton designed the button in 1998, part of a campaign against museum entry fees held during London's "museum week" in May of that year.

Leonardo da Vinci was one of the first masters Johns admired. He was especially captivated by the Deluge drawings, their swirling eddies of black chalk giving form to natural disasters.

Da Vinci drew them towards the end of his life, when his head was filled with apocalyptic visions of floods destroying whole towns and even mountains.

When he was in his mid-30s, Johns had a chance to see the drawings at the Royal Library in Windsor Castle.

Was it an exciting experience? "Yes," he said with typical terseness and a little laugh, "except that they looked exactly like the reproductions."

In this case, the reproductions resembled the truth.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 19, 2018, with the headline 'A discussion on truths at Jasper Johns show'. Subscribe