Jasper Johns’ Flag and his Fascination with the Familiar
Origins of Jasper Johns’s Flags
The predetermined format of the American flag as it was first conceived by Johns in 1950 featured 48 stars and 13 stripes. In his painstaking rendering of such familiar images as targets, flags and maps, Johns unraveled the uncertain distinction between that which is seen and that which is implied, bringing to the fore the viewer’s own agency in perceiving and constructing the world around us. Unlike the output of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, who embraced intuition and spontaneity, Johns’s corpus reveals a prescribed and premeditated approach.
“Say, the painting of a flag is always about a flag, but it is no more about a flag than it is about a brush-stroke or about a color or about the physicality of the paint, I think.”
A triumph of painterly and conceptual rigor, Flag from 1994 stands amongst the most elegantly resolved embodiments of the fascination with sign and meaning that defines the core of Johns’s practice. Executed four decades after Johns first confronted the image of the American flag as a subject worthy of visual interrogation, the sumptuously rendered surface of Flag serves as testament to Johns’s prestigious prowess and relentless curiosity at the apex of his mature creative powers. First rendered in the customary red, white and blue, then veiled by the ethereal monochrome of Johns’s favored grayscale palette, the nuanced coloration and multidimensional complexity of this 1994 Flag is amongst the most exquisite of Johns’ iconic motif. In a manner reminiscent of Cy Twombly’s iconic 'Blackboard' paintings, frenetic bursts of graphite lines squiggle along the horizontal stripes of the flag, their frenzied energy disrupting the structuring forms to emphasize the process of mark-making.
Directly acquired from Leo Castelli Gallery two years after its execution, Flag has been held in the same distinguished American collection for over two decades, and it has been included in a number of major exhibitions of the artist’s work, including Jasper Johns: Gray, a 2007-2008 exhibition centered upon the essential importance of ‘gray’ as a color and motif within Johns’ practice and organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In his introductory text for that catalogue, scholar James Rondeau wrote, “In choosing to articulate gray versions of nearly every key pictorial theme, Johns encourages comparisons across, not just within, related bodies of work. Gray allows the artist to pose allied questions within disparate fields of inquiry, to see something and then to resee it differently.”
Executed in 1965-1966, the impressively scaled Flags emerges from the earliest decades of Johns’s exhaustive exploration into the eponymous motif, and is one of only a very small number of large works on paper featuring the flag. Others reside in esteemed collections such as the Menil Collection, Houston and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Brilliantly rendered in watercolor and graphite on handmade paper, Flags reveals Johns’s inquisitive propensity to examine the same image through a diversity of mediums. Despite the unforgiving nature of watercolor, Johns achieves the precision of each discrete stroke, just as he does with his oil and encaustic on canvas paintings, demonstrating his incredible technical mastery.
This work is further distinguished by its pristine provenance and exceptional exhibition history, having remained in the esteemed Asher family collection since first acquired in 1971, and having been displayed at numerous prestigious institutions around the world. Included amongst these, Flags was chosen for inclusion in Henry Geldzahler’s legendary exhibition Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969, as well as Johns’s historic retrospective of his drawings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. in 1990.
Flags features two stacked flags laid against a monochromatic gray background. The upper flag is rendered in green, black and orange – complementary colors to red, white, and blue – and the lower example in varying hues of gray. Upon staring at the green, black and orange flag and then immediately shifting attention to the monochromatic gray flag beneath it, one’s brain will unconsciously superimpose a complementary after-image of red, white and blue onto the gray flag, magnificently exemplifying Johns’s unending fascination with the malleability of representation. Rather than the artist, it is the viewer who “paints” the flag in its traditional red, white and blue.
Bearing a nearly identical compositional format to the renowned painting also entitled Flags from 1965, which resides in the collection of the artist and has been on long-term loan to the Walker Art Center since 1988, this watercolor actually postdates the larger oil paint on canvas composition, rendering it the ultimate realization and crystallization of this visionary pictorial motif.
In both Flag (1994) and Flags (1965-1966), by compromising the coloration we expect from a flag, Johns makes strange something universally familiar, emphatically demonstrating the inherent metaphysical slippage between what we see and what we know.