jasper johns flag
“In the early 1950s, while working closely with Robert Rauschenberg in adjacent lofts in lower Manhattan, Johns resolved to be an artist. With this novel sense of determination, Johns did two things that would help establish his identity and significance as an artist. First, he systematically destroyed all existing work in his possession, vowing that henceforth his art would be free of perceptible debt to other artists. Secondly, he painted Flag, a curiously mature work inspired by a dream in which he saw himself painting an American flag. Moderate in scale it has none of the visionary qualities one might expect given its purported origins in the artist’s unconscious.
“A close look at Flag’s surface confirms that Johns shared his contemporaries’ interest in the material properties of paint. In most other respects, however, Flag stood apart from its context: in an era that prized abstraction, Johns chose recognizable, commonplace subject matter.”
If Johns paints the word “red” on yellow, as he does in 1959’s False Start, does that make it red or yellow? It’s a conundrum that dates at least to Marcel Duchamp and his use of found objects and “readymades,” or even to Rene Magritte, whose The Treachery of Images has the phrase “this is not a pipe” written under what isn’t a pipe but an image of a pipe.
Artist Billy Al Bengston, one of L.A.’s original Ferus Gallery “Cool School” practitioners that included Ed Ruscha, John Altoon, Larry Bell and others, first saw Johns’s work at the Venice Biennale in 1958. “I saw Jasper Johns’ Flag and that was it. I didn’t see anything that looked like art in Venice after that,” he recalled to Observer. “It’s just that it was so blatantly in your face. They weren’t chicken shit.”
Gallery label from “Collection 1940s—1970s”, 2019
The forty-eight stars and red-and-white stripes depicted here picture an American flag from the year this work was made. Johns noted that using a recognizable image took care of a great deal for him because he didn’t have to design it. He made this work by combining panels, paint, and encaustic—a mixture of pigment and melted wax that captured the paint’s drips, smears, and brushstrokes. Beneath the flag’s familiar stripes, we can make out a collage of newspaper scraps whose dates locate this commonplace symbol within a particular moment.
But if you listen carefully to what Johns says 2:20 into the video clip of the Sylvester interview something interesting happens. Johns breaks into nervous laughter as he offers this anecdote: “My Aunt Gladys, when she read the thing in the magazine, wrote me a letter saying she was so proud of me because she had worked so hard to instill some respect for the American flag in her students. and she was so glad (breaking into laughter) that the mark had been left (more laughter) on me.”
With that correction in place it’s time to talk about what is known about why Johns painted the flag and what he wanted it to stand for. That will take us into a situation where facts are sparse, meanings are murky and questions will multiply. A good place to start would seem to be considering what the artist himself has said about the origins and meanings of his flag. Then again, when David Sylvester interviewed Johns in 1965 the artist mainly offered up trivialities: the idea came to him in a dream, it was painted with encaustic since enamel didn’t dry quickly enough, etc. etc.
It’s an impressive work of art, one that draws you in and invites a further examination of every element.
The painting is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in NYC. © 2013 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY