jasper johns flag analysis
This sense of “other levels” is critical to Jasper Johns’ method of operation. If he does not create an images, but uses ready-made designs, images, and lettering, what does his work consist of?
Using the design of the American flag took care of a great deal for me because I didn’t have to design it. So I went on to similar things like the targets – things the mind already knows. That gave me room to work on other levels.”
In November 2014 the encaustic Flag (1983) was auctioned off for $36,000,000 at Sotheby’s New York.
The work measures 107.3 centimetres (42.2 in) by 153.8 centimetres (60.6 in). It is made using encaustic, oil paint, and newsprint collage on three separate canvases, mounted on a plywood board. The painting reflects the three colors of the US flag: red, white and blue; the flag is depicted in the form it took between 1912 and 1959, with 48 white stars on a blue canton representing the then-US states (excluding Alaska and Hawaii), and with thirteen red and white stripes. Newsprint is visible under the stripes. Reading the texts, it is clear that the newsprint was not selected at random: Johns steered clear of headlines, or national or political news, and used inconsequential articles or adverts. The painting has a rough-textured surface, and the 48 stars are not identical. It is dated 1954 on its reverse.
Gallery label from “Collection 1940s—1970s”, 2019
“It all began…with my painting a picture of an American flag,” Johns remarked in 1959 in reference to this work. Flag was made on a cut bedsheet using oil paint and then encaustic, a method involving pigmented melted wax. Johns dipped strips of cloth and newsprint into the hot wax and then affixed them to the sheet to fill in a penciled outline of the flag. The result is a picture whose process is registered on its surface, a focus on materiality at odds with the expressionistic gestures dominant in painting at the time of Flag’s making. Johns went on to use encaustic to render familiar forms—flags, targets, numbers, letters, and a map of the United States—time and again throughout his career.
“Flag is covered with a lush array of drips and fleshy brushstrokes, initially confirming Johns’s kinship with mid-century American painting. Yet Johns’s motif and technique tell a different story – one of endings and beginnings, and the passage that comes in between. Begun in the fashionable medium of oil-based enamel paint, Flag was completed using the anachronistic medium of encaustic in which pigment is mixed with hot wax and, in Flag’s case, strips of newspaper and fabric to which the coloured encaustic adhered. As Johns explained it, encaustic allowed him to be more efficient and, at the same time, more deliberate in his gestures. In other words, because pigmented wax sets quickly, Johns could add another mark or strip of saturated paper or cloth with the assurance that any previously laid marks would remain unaffected. In this way, each discrete trace was preserved, effectively embalmed.
“Although Johns was loath to admit it, something else was preserved in Flag too. For while it established his reputation as an artist and delivered him from his origins in the agrarian South, it also affirmed the influence of these roots on his thinking. As the artist belatedly revealed in an interview in 1990. “In Savannah, Georgia, in a park, there is a statue of Sergeant William Jasper. Once I was walking through this park with my father, and he said that we were named for him. Whether or not that is in fact true or not, I don’t know. Sergeant Jasper lost his life raising the American flag over a fort.’”
So, just to correct a widely-held Art World myth, Jasper Johns is not descended from a hero who rescued an American flag. Yes, Johns is named for a patriot who saved a flag, but it was the one you see above, not the revolutionary stars and stripes (see example below)
In regards to Johns’ flags, when seeing them in person It is interesting to look closely and see the fragments of yellowed newspaper text peeking through. In the case of the 1967 flag on view at The Broad in Los Angeles, there are bits and pieces of the New York Times. Yes, these words were once part of a coherent front page, carefully contextualized and ordered. In a Johns flag painting they are reduced to fragments and gibberish, organized with frustrating subjectivity by a creative mind. Like the nervous laughter Johns emits when talking about the letter from his Aunt Gladys, the imagery of his flags is meant to deflect further exploration. Bits and pieces are all you can expect to get.