(Roberta Bernstein and Edith Devaney, “Something Resembling Truth,” in Exh. Cat., London, Royal Academy of Arts, Jasper Johns, 2017, p. 12)
“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.”
(Jasper Johns, cited in Exh. Cat., Oxford, Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), Jasper Johns Drawings, 1974, p. 13)
For over six decades, Johns has pursued an unprecedented painterly interrogation of image-making that, in its virtuosic ingenuity and unswerving resolve, constitutes one of the greatest artistic achievements of the Twentieth Century. A triumph of painterly and conceptual rigor alike, Flag from 1994 stands amongst the most elegantly resolved embodiments of the fascination with sign and meaning that defines the core of Johns’ practice. In his painstaking rendering of such familiar images as targets, flags, and maps, Johns unravels the uncertain distinction between signifier and signified—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. Executed four decades after Johns first confronted the image of the American flag as a subject worthy of protracted visual interrogation, the sumptuously rendered surface of Flag serves as singular testament to prestigious prowess and relentless curiosity of an artist at the apex of his mature creative powers. First rendered in the customary red, white, and blue of the familiar American emblem, then veiled by the ethereal monochrome of Johns’ most favored grayscale palette, the nuanced coloration and multidimensional complexity of the present Flag is, even within this revered series, amongst the most exquisite and virtuosic embodiments of Johns’ iconic motif. Delicately daubed and spread upon the canvas, the shimmering gray pigment reveals a hushed accumulation of gestures, as each precise stroke is articulated with breathtaking specificity; from within their silvery shroud, the once saturated colors of the flag flicker with insistent presence, the two distinct renderings fusing to articulate the acute cognitive dissonance of a familiar image made uncanny. With each bar, a flurry of graphite scrawls and deliberately exaggerated strokes of paint punctuate the color field, resulting in an image that explodes with gestural fervor. 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 has been included in a number of major exhibitions of the artist’s work, including Jasper Johns: Gray, an 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 2007—2008. A masterstroke at the intersection of the two primary, equally vital lines of artistic inquiry at the heart of Johns's practice, Flag constitutes the ultimate summation of his signature concern: the reworking of familiar images to engage, explore, and expose the ways in which art creates meaning within the mind’s eye.
At once intimate and uncanny, mysterious and matter-of-fact, Flag exemplifies that tautly thrilling ambiguity which marks the very best examples of the artist’s output; standing before the present work, the image we see is both a flag and a painting of a flag, destabilizing traditional borders between the painted image and that which it represents. Amongst the most iconic painterly series of the Twentieth Century, the Flag—initiated by the artist in the predetermined, 1950s-era format of forty-eight stars and thirteen alternating red and white stripes in 1954—became a vehicle through which Johns could explore the shifting meanings inherent to the most basic of images, all the while investigating how the use of medium and method can manipulate, frustrate, or amplify the effect of the image in question. As in in the artist’s Targets, Maps, and Numbers, Johns use of the American flag as a founding motif harnesses the image’s inherent invisibility: by virtue of its familiarity, it becomes something ‘seen and not looked at, not examined…things the mind already knows.’ (The artist, cited in Exh. Cat., London, Royal Academy of Arts, Jasper Johns, 2017, p. 12) By Johns’ intent, then, the viewer is not impeded by the need to comprehend the image; it is intrinsically legible, facilitating immediate absorption in the extraordinarily luxuriant physical and material properties of the painting. This competing tension between legibility and surprise, and between the whole image and its constituent parts, is the crux of Johns’ visual intelligence, providing us with an image arrested squarely in the process of its own creation both on the canvas and in our own minds. In the artist’s own words, “I’m not willing to accept the representation of a thing as being the real thing, and I am frequently unwilling to work with the representation of the thing as, you know, as standing for the real thing. I like what I see to be real, or to be my idea of what is real. And I think I have a kind of resentment against illusion when I can recognize it.” (Jasper Johns in an unpublished interview with David Sylvester recorded for the BBC at Edisto Beach, South Carolina, Spring 1965, published in Exh. Cat., Oxford, Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), Jasper Johns Drawings, 1974, p. 15) In perhaps his most subversive and inspired act of conceptual subterfuge, however, Johns’ painting does, ultimately, retain the resonance of the thing itself: hung upon the wall, Flag achieves a solemn significance equally worthy of post-modern critical analysis as of a salute.
In the delicately variegated grayscale of the present work, the graphic force of Johns’ early Flag paintings is infused with the sobering intensity and profound formal elegance which defines the artist’s most favored color palette: gray. An essential tool within Johns’ considerable conceptual arsenal, the importance of gray within the artist’s oeuvre was crystallized in the 2008 exhibition Jasper Johns: Gray at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in which the present work was notably included; 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. 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.” (Jasper Johns quoted in James Rondeau, “Jasper Johns: Gray,” Exh. Cat., Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago (and travelling), Jasper Johns: Gray, 2007-2008, p. 28) By veiling the traditional red, white, and blue flag beneath a nearly translucent curtain of silvery pigment, Johns narrows the viewer’s attention upon the present work as a literal object, rather than image. Below the lustrous, monochromatic façade, the beguiling red and blue tones flicker insistently, making their former presence known in subtle invocation of Johns’ famous self-instruction from an early workbook, “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” Describing the allure of grayscale, Johns reflects: “I used gray... because to me this has suggested a kind of literal quality that was unmoved by coloration and thus avoided all the emotional and dramatic quality of color. Black and white is very leading. It tells you what to say or do.” Unlike the more histrionic poles of the color spectrum, gray: “seemed to allow the literal qualities of the painting to predominate over any others.” (The artist cited in Richard Francis, Jasper Johns, New York, 1984, p. 37) By compromising the coloration we expect from a flag—or, indeed, from an image of a flag—Johns makes strange something universally familiar, emphatically demonstrating the inherent metaphysical slippage between what we see and what we know. Just as his adoption of ‘things the mind already knows’ subverts traditional boundaries between the painting before us and that which it represents, the use of grayscale further destabilizes our reading of the image before us, prompting the viewer towards an ever more interrogative practice of seeing and reading the world we inhabit.
Once divested of color, the subtle variances of Johns’ precise painterly touch become even more profound in their delicate nuances; offering veiled glimpses of the shimmering pigment below, dusky veils of pigment pool and flow around the white tips of obscured stars, while feather light brushstrokes deploy the lustrous pigment with exacting specificity to create a silvery topography of sensuously dappled ridges and furrows. In a manner reminiscent of Cy Twombly’s iconic 'Blackboard' paintings, frenetic bursts of graphite line squirm and squiggle along the horizontal stripes of the flag, their frenzied energy disrupting the structuring forms to emphasize the process of mark-making which creates abstract and semiotic images alike. Within the acutely specific terms of Johns’ artistic vernacular, the tangible material elements of the painting—pigment, support, and mark—are brought into sharp relief, transforming the loaded signifier before us into something uncanny and exhilarating. Indeed, for all that Flag explores ‘things the mind already knows,’ it likewise interrogates ‘things that painting already does:’ used to depict an image we have always already known, each brushstroke is made primary subject, articulating its own materiality with thrilling specificity.
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