One of the most influential paintings of the last century came to Jasper Johns in a dream. Johns dreamt one night of painting a large American flag and, as the legend goes, the next morning he subsequently set out to do so. Executed almost three decades later, Flag of 1983 unarguably represents the most mature and profoundly personal realization of Johns’ iconic subject. With every sumptuous inflection of paint, Flag reveals a hushed accumulation of gestures—every stroke meets a dead end and a fresh start. Thoughtful, deliberate, and earth-shatteringly moving, we stand enraptured before the painting’s astonishing ambition, sensational clarity, and sobering gravity. Acquired directly from the artist in the year it was made, Flag has remained in the same distinguished private collection for over 30 years. During this time, the present work has been on extended loan to a series of museums, including the Yale University Art Gallery, the RISD Museum of Art, and most recently the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it hung for seven years. While the flag is a subject that Johns returned to frequently over the course of his career in a variety of different media, including sculpmetal, bronze, lithography, drawing, and printmaking, the encaustic paintings remain the most rarefied and sought after realization of his iconic idea. Treasured in the most eminent personal collections and renowned museum collections around the world, variations on Johns’ Flag belong to such public institutions as the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; the Museum Ludwig in Cologne; the Kunstmuseum Basel; and the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig in Vienna.
Johns has described his persistent preoccupation with the Flags, Targets, and Numbers that launched his career in terms of their status as “pre-formed, conventional, de-personalized, factual, exterior elements,” and his pursuant attention to a certain neutrality or emotional disengagement in his work. (Johns quoted in an interview with David Sylvester, Spring 1965, cited in Richard Francis, Jasper Johns, 1984, p. 21) In Flag, what Johns achieved with great invention and uncanny intellect is a tautly thrilling ambiguity: what we see is both a flag and a painting of a flag, destabilizing traditional borders between the painted image and that which it represents. The painting’s materiality is made veritable by its densely defined surface, with the pliable encaustic paint conveying a fleshy and corporeal dimensionality. Possessing what has been called one of the most literal painterly minds, Johns conflated image and objecthood so as to entice the viewer into a carefully calibrated cerebral game of verisimilitude and concomitant anti-illusionism. In the artist’s own words, “I’m not willing to accept the representation of a thing as being the real thing, and I am frequently unwilling to work with the representation of the thing as, you know, as standing for the real thing. I like what I see to be real, or to be my idea of what is real. And I think I have a kind of resentment against illusion when I can recognize it.” (Jasper Johns in an unpublished interview with David Sylvester recorded for the BBC at Edisto Beach, South Carolina, Spring 1965, published in Exh. Cat., Oxford, Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), Jasper Johns Drawings, 1974, p. 15) In engineering an extraordinarily painterly facsimile of an image that is aggressively direct, Johns’ Flag makes strange something that is universally familiar. In the everyday barrage of visual stimuli, unconsciously we filter that which we will give our attention, ignoring the instantly recognizable images that our mind already knows. Yet, the luscious surface of the work—unusual to the typical treatment of a flag—draws our notice and makes us look again with renewed curiosity and bewilderment, emphasizing the metaphysical tension between what we see and what we know.
Johns famously said, “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.” (Johns cited in Exh. Cat., London, Anthony D’Offay Gallery, Jasper Johns Flags, 1996, p. 15) The flag—a predetermined format in the 1950s of forty-eight stars and thirteen alternating red and white stripes with fixed internal proportions—became a vehicle for Johns to explore how an image is made through medium and method, concentrating thoughtfully on the means of picture-making rather than the end. Not having to invent a compositional structure as a starting point left Johns free to experiment in more radical ways. A flag, even unlike Johns’ Targets and Numbers, is an image with inflexible internal divisions and a strict organization of color. In representing such a comprehensively identifiable symbol, Johns harnessed the image’s inherent invisibility—by virtue of its ubiquity, it becomes for the viewer something that is “seen and not looked at.” (Johns cited in Michael Crichton, Jasper Johns, 1994, p. 30) By Johns’ intent, then, the viewer is not impeded by the need to comprehend the image; it is intrinsically legible, facilitating immediate absorption in the extraordinarily luxuriant physical and material properties of the painting. This competing tension between legibility and surprise, and between the whole image and its constituent parts, is the crux of Johns’ visual intelligence, providing us with an image arrested squarely in the process of its own creation both on the canvas and in our own minds.
From within the pre-ordained parameters dictated by the flag’s strict design erupts a tightly controlled chaos of sharp staccato strokes. A handful of terse drips subtly disobey the boundaries set forth by the alternating stripes, while small unpainted areas among the spells of thickly encrusted impasto concede the painterly surface that lies beneath. With each of the forty-eight white stars firmly planted at their customary coordinates, the terrain of swift blue strokes in which they are embedded encircles them, disrupting their purported regularity: as the blue imperfectly borders on the five-point perimeter of every star, Johns’ hand trespasses the perfectly straight lines, covering some edges while leaving around others some hint of the raw support. Johns paints with encaustic, a method whereby pigment is dissolved in hot liquid wax that is then applied in strokes to the support; as explained by the artist, “I wanted to show what had gone before in a picture, and what was done after. But if you put on a heavy brushstroke in paint, and then add another stroke, the second stroke smears the first, unless the paint is dry. And paint takes too long to dry. I didn’t know what to do. Then someone suggested wax. It worked very well; as soon as the wax was cool I could put on another stroke and it would not alter the first.” (Johns cited in Ibid., p. 30) Unlike oils, which can be easily mixed and reworked once applied, encaustic hardens rapidly and requires nimble movement of the brush—Johns swipes his brush in quick, discrete strokes that upon drying bear the conspicuous record of their own making. Strikingly palpable in the present work, his brushstrokes don’t blend—each retains a distinct tone, volume, and direction. Within each stripe of red and white, one can easily discern the network of single strokes that preserve a compellingly temporal quality, making evident the time and effort spent during and between every consecutive mark that encompasses each star and stripe. Although Johns was a resolute innovator, experimenting in a range of materials, the richly indulgent surface of his encaustic paintings are his most singularly beloved. In 1962, Leo Steinberg wrote of Johns’ technique, “This is the way Cézanne used to paint, in broken planes composed of adjacent values; imparting pictorial flatness to things which the mind knows to be atmospheric and spatial. Johns, with that same type of brush work that hovers midway between opaque canvas and spatial illusion, does the reverse: allowing an atmospheric suggestion to things which the mind knows to be flat.” (Exh. Cat., London, Anthony D’Offay Gallery, Op. Cit., 1996, p. 12) Like the 1954-55 Flag, which disclosed a network of collaged newspaper clippings behind the painted image, the present example introduces a subtle tension between Johns’ encaustic and an untraditional foundation. Flag spectacularly sees Johns apply his encaustic to silk, a stark contradiction of textural interplay that pits the dense, heavily worked wax against the delicate fibers of the support. Close observation reveals cavities of unadorned silk, intoxicatingly divulging the tension of the wax interacting with the fabric beneath it.
The Flag is not only Johns’ earliest subject, but it is the one with which this unanimously revered artist is most closely associated. The first Flag of 1954-55 was initially revealed to the public in a group show at Leo Castelli in 1957, and would later highlight Johns’ first one-person exhibition at Castelli early the next year, alongside the artist’s first Targets, Numbers, Alphabets, and his gray paintings of objects such as Canvas and Drawer. In a moment of artistic clarity and resolve, Johns destroyed all his work dating before 1955, intentionally positioning Flag as his very first painting—a remarkably mature and fully-realized conceptual expression from a man who had just turned 25. After Castelli saw Johns’ Green Target in the 1957 Jewish Museum exhibition Artists of the New York School: Second Generation, he mentioned the work while visiting Rauschenberg, who then promptly took Castelli downstairs to meet Johns. The gallerist was immediately overwhelmed by the astounding coherence and precocious ingenuity that he saw in the complete body of work at Johns’ studio. Alfred H. Barr acquired three works for the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection from Johns’ first solo outing at Castelli in January 1958, with the remainder being swept up by major collectors. Although Johns’ work was met with wide critical acclaim and instantaneous success, many observers were deeply unsettled by the artist’s ostensibly rudimentary language. Of the works that Barr selected, Flag of 1954-55 was not one of them—it only later found its way into the museum collection by way of a gift of the architect Philip Johnson. Similarly, the now iconic Target with Plaster Casts was also turned down by MoMA and the Jewish Museum, allegedly because the casts lining the top edge of the canvas included genitalia.
Noted critic Leo Steinberg was dumbfounded and nonplussed by the show; unsure how to respond to Johns’ refusal to conform to any idea of what a painting should or could be, Steinberg described his reaction as one of “bewildered alarm.” As noted by Clement Greenberg, what one would consider representational—the image of the flag—became an abstract symbol in Johns’ hands, while what would generally be cited as abstract—the foregrounded brushstrokes and geometrically bound zones of color—were put to the service of representation. Most radical at this time, however, was that a painting could be as premeditated as Johns’ consciously disciplined, programmatic Flag; in subjecting his painting to the given structure and palette of the American symbol, Johns denied the faith that his predecessors wholeheartedly invested in improvisational compositions.
Johns emerged in a period where the artistic climate was dominated by the hegemonic influence of New York School Abstract Expressionism. The achievement of artists like de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko, and Still made American painting the discursive leader at mid-century. While these artists each staked out particular styles as their own—with action painting and color-field at the fore—they were united by a distinctly American male sensibility, shaping the identity of artistic practice by the large-scale macho expression of the self. In response to this overwhelming authority of Americana, Johns painted Flag, offering an alternative to Abstract Expressionism by reintroducing representation into painting while provoking the very tenets of the style so predominant at the time. Even in the face of its intentional neutrality, Flag was iconoclastic, causing a critical rupture in the foundation set forth for Johns and his contemporaries by the preceding generation of painterly heavyweights. Michael Crichton noted of the artist, “Johns has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to insinuate himself into spaces where there does not, at first, seem to be room for play, and this has been true from his earliest paintings. In terms of art history, one could simplify his stance and say that he has slipped in between Duchamp and Pollock, between the found object and the highly personal abstraction.” (Michael Crichton, Op. Cit., p. 86) Art history has plainly written Johns into the books as the crucial and convenient link between the all-over painterly surfaces of Abstract Expressionism, Pop’s appropriation of mass-market cultural imagery, and Minimalism’s stark literalness. Widely considered the progenitor of Pop Art, Johns’ use of the American flag as image opened up the discourse of ubiquitous cultural symbols and their representation before Andy Warhol ever picked up a silkscreen or Roy Lichtenstein painted his first benday dot. Johns’ painting, however, lacks the ironic bent endemic to Pop, instead maintaining a private and taciturn character of introspection. Meanwhile, the immediacy and autonomous wholeness of Johns’ Flag catalyzed early minimalist sculpture by artists like Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, who sought to remove any sort of representation from the arsenal of abstraction and focus wholly on material and its internal compositional relationships. As sculptor and conceptual artist Robert Morris wrote in 1969, “Johns took painting further toward a state of non-depiction than anyone else… Johns took the background out of painting and isolated the thing. The background became the wall. What was previously neutral became actual, while what was previously an image became a thing.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, 1996, p. 99)
Operating in the tradition of the Duchampian readymade, Johns’ Flag revels in its familiarity, utilizing signs and symbols that require no compositional invention. However, Johns inverts the attitudes traditionally associated with the readymade—while Duchamp upended a urinal and called it art, in contrast Johns built two Ballantine ale cans in bronze with inordinate patience and painstaking attention, painting these objects in fantastic trompe l’oeil precision. In the exhaustive density of its surface comprised of laboriously applied individual brushstrokes, Johns’ Flag celebrates a passion for mark-making. Both Johns and Robert Rauschenberg have been discussed together as neo-Dadaists in their proclivity toward collage and the incorporation of the commonplace into art. Whereas Rauschenberg let the world into the picture plane by way of his hyper-personal Combines, Johns put the picture plane out into the world—all of his paintings maintain a familiar objecthood, as if they could be just the thing that they claim to represent. In an interview with David Sylvester in 1965, Johns said: “I’m interested in things which suggest the world rather than suggest the personality. I’m interested in things which suggest things which are rather than in judgments. The most conventional things, the most ordinary things—it seems to me that those things can be dealt with without having to judge them; they seem to me to exist as clear facts not involving aesthetic hierarchy.” (Richard Francis, Op. Cit., p. 21)
From the very genesis of visual representation, spanning from the early paleolithic cave drawings to religious effigies of civilizations past, images have been invested with deep ontological power. On a primitive level, humans are still susceptible to believing that the image of a thing is irrevocably tied to the matter itself; that they are one and the same is however merely a construct that Johns’ Flag works to unravel. The painting oscillates at the juncture of abstraction and representation, positing the question of how to represent that which is already an abstraction. While the image of the flag derives from an ostensibly real thing, at its very formal and conceptual core the American flag is merely a construct. A symbolic representation of the nation and a significant body politic, the flag is an entity that carries a status exceeding its materiality, possessing a religious or otherworldly nature that is viewed by many as a physical microcosm of the state. Its significant allegorical power invests it with completely abstract, intangible value; moreover, if removed of its connotative quotient, the flag’s pictorial structure of stars and stripes is evocative of an early modernist picture, its sharp edges and bold colors evoking Malevich or de Stijl. Subverting our immediate reaction of familiarity with what appears to be a representational image, Johns’ Flag trespasses the mind’s presumptions of what is real, and actively engages our powers of perception: “I think that one wants from painting a sense of life…One wants to be able to use all of one’s facilities, when one looks at a picture, or at least to be aware of all of one’s facilities in all aspects of one’s life… like we were saying a while ago, a surprise. You may have to choose how to respond and you may respond in a limited way, but you have been aware that you are alive.” (Johns cited in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Op. Cit., p. 99)
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