Unlike the output of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, who embraced intuition and spontaneity, Johns’ corpus reveals a prescribed and premeditated approach. Exemplifying the intellectual rigor and deadpan literalism that distinguish Johns’ celebrated artistic practice, the present work synthesizes a number of the conceptual explorations which Johns would continue to rework for the following decade. In Flags, Johns achieves with great invention and uncanny intellect a taut ambiguity: what we see is both a flag and a drawing of a flag, destabilizing the traditional border between a thing and the representation of a thing. With astounding ingenuity and layered complexity, Johns expresses his unrelenting skepticism about art – not only its ability to effectively represent a vivid, illusionistic view of the world, but also its capacity to faithfully communicate an artist’s ideas and emotions. Rendered with a gestural fluidity characteristic of the watercolor medium, Flags carefully maintains the delineation of individual brushstrokes and dutifully obeys the meticulous borders of the predetermined flag format. Indeed, despite the unforgiving nature of watercolor and its propensity to saturate paper, 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. Flags juxtaposes impersonal motifs with expressive brushwork, insisting upon the physicality of each stroke and the intimacy of the work on paper format, and ultimately laying bare the unreliability of either abstraction or representation.
The present work features two stacked flags laid against a monochromatic gray background. The topmost flag is rendered in green, black, and orange – complementary colors to red, white, and blue – and the lower example in varying hues of gray. The compositional format of Flags is constructed so as to provoke an optical response from the viewer: if one stares at the green, black, and orange flag and then immediately shifts his or her 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 scale flag. The eye tricks the brain, wondrously transforming the grayscale flag before the viewer’s eyes. Magnificently exemplifying Johns’ unending fascination with the malleability of representation, the artist ingeniously makes the viewer complicit in the construction of the composition, as the viewer, rather than the artist, “paints” the flag in its traditional red, white, and blue colors. Johns capitalizes on the optical principles of a Gestalt image – a motif he would revisit more explicitly in his later compositions – and furthermore alerts us to the ubiquity of this optical illusion. An emphatic testament to Johns’ fascination in selecting “things the mind already knows” as compositional motifs in his works, the mind’s construction of red, white, and blue is in fact the ultimate crystallization of Johns’ investigation and ingeniously summarizes why he chose the American flag. This process of grasping meaning and drawing associations from fragmentary images is in fact ordinary to our everyday visual experience: the idea of a “flag” is so ingrained that it becomes nearly impossible to simply see the flag as an arrangement of lines and color, independent of its symbolic associations and entirely stripped of its context, sociopolitical and otherwise. The present Flags, even more so than Johns’ singular red, white, and blue flag compositions, oscillates at the juncture of abstraction and representation. While the two flags depicted here derive from an ostensibly real thing, at its very formal and conceptual core the flag is merely a construct; the allegorical power that we have prescribed to it invests it with an intangible value and status exceeding its materiality. In duplicating the American flag motif and tampering with its iconic red, white, and blue color scheme, Johns draws us to the neutrality of the American flag image as a sign.
The predominance of the color gray in Flags is especially significant, both for the optical visual illusion that it inspires and for its conceptual rigor within Johns’ oeuvre. As the fusion of both ends of the chromatic spectrum condensed into a single color, it is through the use of gray that Johns achieves the ultimate act of negation and conclusively declares the ‘objectiveness’ of his paintings. Indeed, the importance of the monochrome in Johns’ oeuvre was underscored in the 2007-2008 exhibition Jasper Johns: Gray at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. James Rondeau notes: “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. If painting is a language, as Johns descended from [Ludwig] Wittgenstein, has often suggested, then gray can be inflected much like a noun, verb or adjective. More accurately, gray is all pervasive, like syntax. Gray exists in Johns’ work not just as color, but also as idea, condition, and material – a thing in and of itself.” (Exh. Cat., Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago (and travelling), Jasper Johns: Gray, 2007, p. 28) What gray offered was a nonillusionistic uniformity; divested of color, the marks Johns made became even more profound, contrasting only in subtle tonal differences. By negating variances in color, Johns focuses the viewer’s attention on the mimetic work, effectively shrinking the gap between a representation and the thing itself.
In the watercolor and graphite on paper Flags, layered watercolor strokes achieve remarkable richness in tone, variation, and cohesion across the composition, allowing the viewer to indulge the eye in captivating optical complexity and delight in the virtuosic beauty of the artist’s hand. With every minute inflection of diluted watercolor paint, the present work reveals a hushed accumulation of gestures – each delicately rendered brushstroke meets a dead end and a fresh start. Refusing categorization as Abstract Expressionist, Minimalist, Pop Art, or Conceptual Art, Flags stands alone as critical touchstone of Johns’ radically influential body of work. As beautiful as it is provocative, the present work unites profoundly disparate themes while eluding full disclosure or interpretation. In the artist’s own words: “I think that one wants from painting a sense of life…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.” (The artist cited in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Jasper Johns, A Retrospective, 1996, p. 99)
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