Book reviews: Jasper Johns | Madrid

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I’M INTERESTED in seeing a thing through as many approaches as possible,” said Jasper Johns in 1954: that diversity has certainly been evident in his paintings and his sculptures.

Jasper Johns edited by Gary Garrels

SFMOMA/Yale, £25 ****

First flying the flag for the American abstract, he became a pioneer of pop and minimalism and, finally, a herald of conceptual art. Yet he wouldn’t have been so influential if he hadn’t been problematic in important and interesting ways, as the essays here make clear. He believed that a work wasn’t just a window on the imagination but an object, “a real thing in itself”. Wherein did the art reside? “Sometimes I see it and then paint it,” he once said. “Other times I paint it and then see it. Both are impure situations, and I prefer neither.”

Madrid by Jules Stewart

Tauris, £18.99 ****

“Once you’ve been to Madrid,” the Madrileños say, “the only place to go is heaven.” Though the settlement the Moors called “Mayrit” is thought to date from Roman times, as a major city it is in fact a parvenu. Then it owed its emergence under the Catholic monarchs of the 15th century, not to “organic” factors but to an arbitrary royal fiat: for Jules Stewart it’s a “village that plays at being a city” even now. But the people! That, suggests Stewart, is where Madrid’s uniqueness lies. Not that his is a left-wing “people’s history”: Madrid was built by kings and queens, its development shaped by the sort of battles and political crises with which conventional chroniclers are concerned. But the vital buzz of the place has been democratic – a strand we find commemorated all the way from the servants in Velázquez’s works through to the city’s hold-out under siege in the Civil War; from Goya’s bodacious majos to the Móvida of the 1980s. The joint was always jumping, as this fittingly lively history shows.