- Jasper Johns
- signed and dated 1971 on the reverse
- encaustic and collage on canvas
- 26 by 17 in. 66 by 43.2 cm.
Jack Klein, New York
Dr. and Mrs. William Wolgin, Philadelphia
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above
Roberta Bernstein, ``Things the Mind Already Knows'', Jasper Johns Paintings and Sculptures, 1954-1974, New York, 1975 [Columbia University Ph. D. thesis], p. 246 and p. 248, and fig. no. 35, p. 277, illustrated
Roberta Bernstein, The Changing Focus of the Eye: Jasper Johns' Paintings and Sculptures, 1954-74, Ann Arbor, 1985 [revision of 1975 thesis], p. 145 and p. 149
Exh. Cat., London, Anthony d'Offay Gallery, Jasper Johns Flags 1955-1994, 1996, p. 80
In the late fall of 1954 Jasper Johns had a dream in which he saw himself painting a large American flag. The next day he did exactly that: “I got up and I went out and bought the materials to begin it. And I did … I began it in house enamel paint, which you paint furniture with, and it wouldn’t dry quickly enough. And then I had in my head this idea of something I had read or heard about: wax encaustic. In the middle of the painting I changed to that … With encaustic you can just keep on.” (Jasper Johns quoted in Exh. Cat., New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Jasper Johns: A Retrospective, 1996-1997, p. 124). For Johns, the paradigm of a flag provided him with a ‘readymade’ design; one that did not require of him any compositional invention. This was the perfect ‘thing the mind already knows’ which triggered many related ideas and allowed him to work on ‘other levels’ (as the artist has often said). By using the ‘found’ design of the flag, Johns was creating an image which he considered so familiar that it was invisible: seen but not looked at. He also employed an image that could be precisely measured and put onto canvas (“… an object identified by its fixed proportions” as Michael Crichton puts it [Michael Crichton, Jasper Johns, New York, 1994, p. 30]). However, by employing the encaustic technique, with its encrusted, heavily-worked surface, the painted support becomes more than the flag; simultaneously morphing between the familiar and unfamiliar. This dichotomy between presentation and representation; between the Image and its Index, draws Johns’ viewer into the drama of the meanings of his paintings.
Having made his first Flag painting in 1954-1955, Johns would go on to make a number of variations on the same theme throughout the 1950’s and ‘60’s. At first he approximated the shape and colors of the flag with that of the canvas, as in the celebrated case of Flag (1954-55, New York, The Museum of Modern Art). He then floated flags on bright orange grounds (Flag on Orange Field, 1957, Cologne, Museum Ludwig). He also layered flag paintings on top of each other (Three Flags, 1958, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art). He divested the flag of its traditional red, white and blue colors, making monochrome flags, sometimes constructed out of multiple canvases (White Flag, 1955, Collection the artist). In all of these examples, the flag form was always readable as a flag: horizontal, with the stars in the upper left corner. In 1962 he painted two flags in oil and attached them, one on top of each other (Two Flags, 1962, Miami, Collection Norman and Irma Braman) and in 1964 he made Sketch for Flags (1964, Collection Rita Donagh) which not only manipulated the color (replacing America’s red, white and blue with the African National Congress’ gold, green and black) but also broke down the homogenous unit of the flag, displaying only washy, phantasmagoric fragments. This manipulation of the ‘form’ reaches its apotheosis in the present work, Untitled (Flag), executed in 1971 after seventeen years of experimentation with the flag design. Color has now been replaced with tonal distinctions of gray; the flag is now vertical (rotated ninety degrees clockwise) and it has further been ‘flopped’. Interestingly, here, the process of execution becomes the actual ‘flag’ itself, thereby distancing Johns even further from the ‘object’ than he ordinarily did, becoming the mere choreographer of components of the Sign. This is similar to the process employed in John Cage’s music and Merce Cunningham’s choreography, where the totality of experience is finalized by the viewer’s involvement in the various parts presented by the artist. Here, canvas strips, dipped in wax, become the stripes of the flag; cut out canvas stars, literally, are the stars – their ‘reality’ adding another level to the ‘reality’ of the object and, of course, the ‘reality’ of the meaning of the flag. By manipulating the physical surface of the painting of the flag, Johns negotiates the very idea of the flag, and this arresting punch is amplified through the physical coercion of its design. It still says ‘flag’ but not in the way one is used to.
If one goes beyond the intellectual discourse and concentrates exclusively on the actual surface of the work, one can indulge the eye and delight simply in the sheer beauty of the encaustic. Looking at the surface of Untitled (Flag) is similar to looking at the surface of a painting by Paul Cézanne. As David Sylvester wrote, “In a Johns, marks of varying tempo, weight and direction caress and bruise and elaborate and disrupt and erode the familiar forms of everyday objects” (David Sylvester, “Saluting the Flags” in Exh. Cat., London, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, Jasper Johns Flags 1955-1994, 1996, p. 12). Sylvester notes that the Flags, in all their variegated ‘formats’, differ from the other emblems in that it is not the Still Lives by Cézanne that come to mind, but his serial meditation on Mont Sainte-Victoire as seen from Les Lauves. The stripes become the mountain; the stars become the sky. “The basic analogy is that generally the flags are more shimmering than the other emblem pictures”. (Ibid.) Just like Cézanne, Johns applies paint with short, staccato marks, distinguished from each other tonally. Leo Steinberg made the connection between the two luminaries in 1962: “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 the mind knows to be flat.” (Leo Steinberg, “Jasper Johns: The First Seven Years of His Art” (1962) in Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art, New York, 1972, p. 43). A Johns enthralls because it forces the viewer to ask questions that challenge our preconceptions about the status of an aesthetic object; this makes us really look at the subject. It satisfies, because on that journey, one is dazzled by the weight and texture of the encaustic surface and the inflections of pigment and wax one finds Johns able to make with this medium.
It is interesting to consider the material and technique used by Johns when also contemplating the treatment of the ‘subject’. Johns would heat wax until it would liquefy and then add colored pigments. This liquid or paste would then be applied to a surface. Such a laborious process seems to inform the reserved style of the painting which, in turn, echoes the laconic public persona of the artist. Encaustic allowed Johns to suspend the artistic process of execution: as Adrian Searle wrote, “He … froze the brushstroke, turning the drip … into something arrested and impassive.” (Adrian Searle, “The Pop Artist Who Ate Himself”, The Guardian, London, 20th July, 2004). This ‘time delay’ of execution seems to amplify the record of the various speed, weight, tempo and movement of his brushwork, revealing it not to be strictly organized as such, but, perhaps, organized as if by ‘chance’ (like Cage’s music). This also heightens a number of polarities within Johns’ own mark making: clusters of encaustic form yet melt; tighten and then expand; appear and disappear; flower yet decay. Searle notes that if oil paint was invented to depict human flesh, then encaustic “… might have been invented to depict the dead. Wax is used to embalm, and to create the … static likenesses in wax museums.” (Ibid.) Indeed, Johns prefigured both Bruce Nauman and Robert Gober in his employment of fragmented wax body casts within his canvases (see Perilous Night, 1982, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection for an explicit connection). What the ‘medium’ does to the ‘message’ lies in the individual reception of the viewer, but it might be that, given the manipulation of the found design, as well as the use of gray color and the employment of the encaustic medium, that Johns lends the painting something of an elegiac atmosphere.
Johns’ body of work can be seen to explore the artistic possibilities presented by the trinity of red, yellow and blue. However, interrupting this investigation into the logic of the primary colors are works that resound in one color; the fusion of both ends of the spectrum – gray. Untitled (Flag) has been divested of any color, so that the encaustic marks become even more profound on the surface; their distinction between slow, gentle, organized and haphazard, contrasting in tone only as far as they must be to be separable. Their formlessness is corrected by the insertion into the surface of the simple (albeit manipulated) flag design. Johns has made many works in just a gray palette, and this present work is a continuation of that monochromatic style, most profoundly realized in Johns’ more abstract, earlier surfaces such as Gray Rectangles (1957, Seattle, Ebsworth Collection). Underpinning the encaustic design of the flag are fragments of newspaper collage (snippets of what appear to be newspaper advertisements). Newsprint fragments attracted Johns because they convey the semiotic complexity of media superimposition (like watching two films at the same time). They also find a strong connection to the Combine Paintings Robert Rauschenberg was making at the time. One has to go back to the Synthetic Cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque as well as the collages of Kurt Schwitters to find examples where the newspaper collaged ground has played such a pivotal role in the determination of the surface. Here, tiny fragments punctuate the painting, as if floating to the top of the surface from the depths of the encaustic below. This lends more physical and intellectual resonance to the painted surface.
Untitled (Flag) is an outstanding painting that continues a discipline Johns began in 1954. Here one can clearly see that Johns has adopted a markedly objective style that stresses the complex semiotics of the art object: in other words, he has made a painting that engages us with how a phenomenon means what it means. No motif is more associated with Johns’ pictorial language, and his rich and rewarding investigation into the epistemology of the Sign, than that of the American flag. This was the earliest ‘subject’ and vehicle he chose to both explore and embody such ideas and, fifty years later; it is still the ‘subject’ most commonly associated with Jasper Johns’ oeuvre. Some of these Flag paintings are so intractably literal that they almost are flags; at the same time, Johns ambiguously presents them as paintings, explicitly rendered in artistic materials. He asks that the viewer enjoy both the media employed and the techniques the artist has adopted to apply and manipulate that media on the surface: in essence, he wants the viewer to communicate with the surface; its process of realization and, ultimately, the Sign it engages with. That is, the ‘flag’, the ‘painting’ and ‘the-painting-of-the-flag’. The gap between the ‘thing’ and its ‘representation’ was thus made smaller (and more complex) by Johns. Questions of functionality abound, as do Duchampian issues of artistic intention in defining any given object as a work of art. The detailed working of the painted surface, here in shades of gray encaustic, also allowed Johns, typically, to concern himself with the mechanics of the surface as a painting, as well as the dynamic of the Sign it embraces. When considered in concert together, those two intellectual thrusts powerfully sum up Johns’ analysis of the basic structural elements of the language of painting and his thorough digestion of its meanings. This, above all other aesthetic, intellectual or conceptual considerations, elevates his work to the highest levels of appreciation and firmly establishes Johns as one of the great masters of the Twentieth Century.