MAGNIFICENT GESTURES: MASTERWORKS FROM THE DIAMONSTEIN-SPIELVOGEL COLLECTION FULL PROCEEDS TO BENEFIT A NOT-FOR-PROFIT CHARITABLE FOUNDATION
The return to the lithographs from the 1970s provided Johns a platform through which he could experiment with various mediums, textures and marks. Because the American flag is such an instantly recognizable and easily registered motif, it becomes easy to ignore and hides in plain sight, despite its potent symbolism. Executed in a rich black ink over an already saturated lithograph, the present work is immediately striking. The 13 uniformly demarcated stripes brim with varying gradations of deep black ink, which bleed out of its prescribed stencil into the margins. The present work is the only example of its family in which thin rivulets of ink drip neatly down the bottom of the paper, insisting on its materiality - this is a work on paper, a representation of a flag, and not a flag itself. Gestural brushstrokes bound across the lower right hand corner of the flag in horizontal calligraphic abandon, yet remain circumscribed by the upper and lower restrictions of the individual bands. White glints of paper peek through in a visual flicker, animating the otherwise densely black flag. It was this variability of medium that entranced the artist, who said in a 1963 interview: “At one point you rule a line...made with the narrow point of a pencil, and this is called a straight line. And in another situation you make it with a very fluffy brush and with your arm...and you end up with what you call a straight line. But they’re very different one from another...the work tends to correct what lies underneath...like drawing a straight line - you draw a straight line and it’s crooked and you draw another straight line on top of it and it’s crooked a different way and then you draw another one and eventually you have a very rich thing on your hands which is not a straight line.” (Jasper Johns quoted in Pepe Karmel, “Cancellation/Creation: Jasper Johns: Drawings over Prints,” Exh. Cat., New York, Leo Castelli, Drawing Over, 2010, p. 19) Although the American flag contained 50 stars in 1972, the artist adhered to the earlier design of 48 evenly divided among six rows. When asked why he hadn’t updated these works, Johns remarked, “The design does not interest me anymore.” (Ibid, p. 17)
Johns exhibited a long history of appropriating common, everyday images in the service of making these universally familiar objects strange and unexpected. Like René Magritte and the Surrealists before him, Johns used these objects to entice his viewer into a carefully calibrated cerebral game of verisimilitude and concomitant anti-illusionism. In Flag, we see both a flag and a representation of a flag, destabilizing traditional borders between an image and its referent. Johns further complicates this dichotomy by signing his name in the lower right-hand corner of the margin, decidedly ‘outside’ the composition of the flag, underscoring the paper on which the image rests. The present work is a testament to Johns' unwavering commitment to this singular icon, a motif through which he calibrated and recalibrated his oeuvre.
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