Lot 2
  • 2

Jasper Johns

1,000,000 - 1,500,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Jasper Johns
  • Flag
  • signed; signed and inscribed with the date and medium INK 1994 OVER LITHOGRAPH 1972 on the reverse
  • ink over lithograph
  • 17 by 23 1/4 in. 43.2 by 59.1 cm.


The Artist
Susan Lorence, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in April 2000


London, Anthony d'Offay Gallery, Jasper Johns Flags: 1955-1994, June - July 1996, p. 22, no. 21, illustrated in color


Exh. Cat., New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, Jasper Johns: Drawing Over, 2010, p. 67, illustrated in color (LC #D-381)

Catalogue Note

“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.” (Jasper Johns in 1959, quoted in David Sylvester, “Saluting the Flags,” Exh. Cat., London, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, Jasper Johns Flags 1955-1994, 1996, p. 15) This predetermined format of the flag as it was conceived in 1950, featuring 48 stars and 13 stripes, became a vehicle through which Jasper Johns would explore and reexplore the same image through various mediums. Indeed, Johns’ nearly endless and obsessive reworking of this iconic subject occasioned the 1996 exhibition Flags at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London, in which the present work was exhibited. Executed in a variety of materials, ranging from gesso, pastel, graphite, pencil, ink, watercolor and acrylic, these flags highlighted the immense breadth of Johns’ output between the years of 1955 and 1994 and remain a testament to the artist’s ceaseless fascination with both the image of the flag and the many ways in which it could be represented. Included in this impressive proliferation spanning nearly four decades, the present example derives from a limited series of seven iterations of the single flag, in which the artist returned to an earlier 1972 lithograph. In 1972, Johns pulled a number of proofs from the stone bearing the flag. Over twenty years later, he would return to these proofs, sensuously reworking them in ink, carborundum, gesso and acrylic. These seven works are particularly significant to Johns’ group of double dated works, both due to their limited number and because the flag was the artist’s earliest motif and the one with which he is most closely associated.

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.