Jasper Johns is a simple artist. What you see is what you get, and when it’s not what you get, it’s pretty easy to see why. That’s what makes the 87-year-old so important: a simplicity and clarity of ideas that allowed him to be one of the first to break with the stuffy old guard and lay new tracks, ones that would soon be travelled by the adventurers of pop and conceptual art. In contemporary art: you name it, it’s partly his fault.
And it all started with flags, targets, numbers and maps. The early works here take the simple, iconic symbols of everyday life and tear them apart. In 1955 – living in New York surrounded by John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg – Johns hit on the idea of painting the American flag out of newspaper and encaustic paint. The gooey, waxy result hits right in the ol’ frontal cortex. It’s a ludicrously immediate image, one you know so well, subverted so slightly. He does the same thing with the numbers, targets and maps of America. They are basic exercises in pushing the recognisability of an image: how far can you tear apart the basic symbolism of a flag or target before it loses all meaning? Thing is, it never does.
After that, Johns started messing with sculptures pinned to paintings, facing canvases the wrong way, poetry and cross-hatched abstraction. Throughout, he comes across as genuine and earnest. His works are concise crossword clues. When he makes a sculpture of two beers cans, he’s not forcing you to shoulder the burden of figuring it out alone, he’s trying to understand it too.
But when he loses sight of that simplicity, his art loses its appeal. The later works here lack the urgent inquisitiveness, the radical what-if-ism of the earlier paintings. The cross-hatched abstraction just feels a little deflated, and the more recent paintings filled with images of shadows, blueprints and references to mythology and art history are a lot of work for not much reward. It's all too cryptic and, sorry, boring.
Fortunately, the curators have whacked old stuff next to the new stuff for most of this show so the only room you have to skip is the last one, which is filled entirely with his recent work. I mean, you might like it, but I don’t.
But don’t underestimate how brilliant the early stuff is. That amazing target you see in the first room? Johns hit the bullseye. It was an explosive moment of rupture. Imagine the world of overwrought, pained, emotional waffle that must have been 1950s New York – with all of its grumpy, po-faced abstract expressionism – then along comes Jasper, waving his flags and counting his numbers. Nothing would be the same again.