The relationship between Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns was one of the greatest love stories in modern art. A time of intense emotional involvement, together they plotted the downfall of Abstract Expressionism in their grubby paint strewn apartments in downtown New York. In the 1950s, during the 6 years they were together, practically everything they produced was a masterpiece—just think of Rauschenberg’s eclectic Combines and Johns’ Flags and Targets. Works radiant with newness, that gave the first whispered hints of the surprises we had in wait from Contemporary Art.

Johns’ staggering early years of achievement will forever be centered around his relationship with Rauschenberg—a relationship that pervades his latest exhibition “Jasper Johns: Something Approaching Truth” at the Royal Academy in London. The first large-scale exhibition of his work in England for 40 years features more than 150 works, representing the complete working career of the artist. Even at 87, Johns is still hard at work at his home in Connecticut.

On the left Jasper Johns, Summer, 1985 and on the right Jasper Johns, 0 Through 9, 1960

What Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg achieved together was pure iconoclasm. They subverted the myth that all artists were visionaries by depicting banal, everyday objects. But had it not been for the older Rauschenberg, Johns would never have picked up a paintbrush let alone be signed up by Leo Castelli, who at the time was the world’s biggest dealer. The story goes that in 1958 Castelli was visiting Rauschenberg to discuss a planned exhibition, but by a fortuitous turn of events found himself in Johns’ flat directly below. There he discovered a room full of paintings, “years of work never before exhibited”, Flags and Targets, an entirely new pictorial language that turned symbols into abstractions. Soon, of course, they would be turning Johns into America’s most successful living artist.

Castelli signed Johns immediately and Rauschenberg’s planned exhibition was instantly forgotten. In the years that followed Johns’ career thrived, selling out his sensational first exhibition as well as having three works snapped up by MoMA. But Rauschenberg’s career waned and for a time, faltered. By the beginning of the 1960s, their relationship was in tatters; their professional, aesthetic and romantic conflicts utterly irreconcilable. The break up was bitter, and they didn’t speak for years.

On the left Jasper Johns, Fool’s House, 1961–62, Oil on canvas with broom and on the right Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg together at Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles, 1980

In stark contrast to the shy and retreating figure of Johns, who still rarely gives interviews, Rauschenberg was a pulsating, gregarious character. Although their differing personas may have been incendiary in private, they brought the best out of each other in the studio. Rauschenberg’s spontaneous, excited energy collided with the retreating intellectual and well-read Johns, whose slow deliberate style made him, according to art critic Jonathan Katz, “obsessively repeat themes”.

Moving round the Royal Academy exhibition, the standout work could only ever be Flag, 1958, hanging magnificently in its vivid and moving profundity. So exactly proportioned you could almost mistake it for an actual flag, until you see the thick encaustic paint layered with scraps of newspaper. Jasper Johns would revisit the idea 40 times, experimenting with colors and even once turning it into a screenprint. The work raises silent unanswerable questions: is it a flag or a painting? Does it conjure up national pride and freedom, or notions of imperialism and aggression? 

Jasper Johns, Flag, 1958, Encaustic on canvas, Private collection

Although it may first appear to have little in common with Rauschenberg’s work at the time, Flag shares that same focus on cultural fragments, putting reality back into art and thrusting the relationship between viewer and artwork into the limelight. The individualism of the Abstract Expressionists, so dominant at the time, with their personal, testosterone-fueled, emotional tirades on canvas, were suddenly too self-involved—too dependent on the artist’s own psyche.

Robert Rauschenberg would, of course, later become one of the world’s favorite artists, a career highpoint perhaps being his sensational triumph at the Venice Biennale in 1964. But nothing could compare to their first early years of creation, when the two artists broke down the lines separating mass culture and fine art, paving the way for Pop Art and changing Western Art history forever. Johns’ artworks especially were seemingly sprinkled with angel dust, each painting reveling in self-confidence and disarming simplicity. Jasper Johns, Regrets, 2013, Oil on canvas

Which of course only seems to draw attention to the impenetrable distance of some of his later work. What Alastair Sooke, writing for the Telegraph Newspaper, calls “baffling”, as the artist shifts the same oblique images this way and that, “like counters on a tabletop.” The stunning crosshatching works of the 1970s are in abundance, as are the pared-down and conceptual Catenary series which, along with other recent works such as Regrets, 2013, can at times feel off-limits to the viewer. Nevertheless, Johns remains unmatched at articulating the great and unfathomable mysteries of this world, so abundantly revealed throughout this wonderful exhibition.

Jasper Johns: Something Resembling Truth can be viewed from the 23rd of September through to the 10th of December 2017.

By Duncan Ballantyne-Way—Senior Editor