A new series of works by internationally renowned American artist Jasper Johns, currently on display at the Courtauld Gallery, are unlike anything he has previously done. This major new group of works were all inspired by a strong and sudden emotional connection with an image of Lucien Freud that the artist discovered by chance while flicking through a Christies catalogue.
The image in question was that of a photograph commissioned by Francis Bacon and taken by John Deakin showing Freud seated on a bed in Bacon’s studio, his hands covering his face in an ambiguous gesture of introspection. Bacon used the image as source material for his work Study for Self-Portrait (1964).
The distressed qualities of the original print, which was torn and creased from its time in Bacon’s studio, were recreated in Johns’s original image Study for Regrets (2012), first as grey and white shaded facet-like areas that swallowed up the figure of Freud and then, in a mirror image of the first recreation, as brightly coloured shapes. It was at this point Johns noticed a skull-like face staring back at him from the middle of the image he had just created. John’s then took a custom-made rubber stamp usually used to respond to the large number of invitations he receives and stamped ‘Regrets, Jasper Johns’ in the top right hand corner of the work. A sentiment recreated on each of the following pieces in this body of works.
The themes of mortality, memory and regret that this image evokes are carried through the series in the various reincarnations of this first mirrored double image as Johns plays with the various aspects of size, colour and medium.
Regrets may be a reflection by Johns of two lifelong careers spent working in each others backyards, yet never actually meeting his fellow artist Freud. Or these recreations of Freud’s likeness, slowly melding with the background as the skull upon its tombstone shaped perch becomes increasingly more prominent, could be a reflection by a now eighty-three year old Johns on the brief time we have to work with while we’re here.
Although Johns work is extensively exhibited in museums throughout the United States and elsewhere, his work is rarely shown in the United Kingdom. This is a unique opportunity to view this introspective and poignant new body of his work.
Regrets by Jasper Johns runs at the Courtauld gallery until 14th December. For more information go to courtauld.ac.uk.
Maxine Kirsty Sapsford, Arts Editor