"To me the flag turned out to be something I had never observed before. I knew it was a flag, and had used the word flag; yet I had never consciously seen it. I became interested in contemplating objects I had never before taken a really good look at. In my mind that is the significance of these objects” (1)
Executed in 1973, Flags I is a masterpiece of Jasper Johns' prolific 50-year career as a printmaker. Large in scale, and rendered in rich, multi-layered color, the work has been praised as the most painterly and vivid of all his silkscreen works.
Introduced to the technique by Andy Warhol in 1960, Johns was initially uncertain as to whether it would suit his work; a process designed to generate broad areas of flat, single-tone color was not an obvious choice for an artist whose compositions regularly engaged the juxtaposition between transparency and opacity. However, by 1973, Johns deployed it with such technical expertise that he was able to convey certain painterly nuances and subtle complexities through silkscreen that were even out of reach for his hand-painted compositions.
With the help of master printer Hiroshi Kawanishi at Simca Artist Prints, Inc., Johns devised a series of thirty-one screens used in five stages that allowed him to create a richness and depth of color rarely seen in silkscreened works. The artist explained, "By adding a rather large number of screens and having the stencil openings follow the shapes of brushstrokes I have tried to achieve a different type of complexity, one in which the eye no longer focuses on the flatness of the colors and the sharpness of the edges. Of course, this may constitute an abuse of the medium, of its true nature”(2).
Executed in a range of painterly marks--from short, rough gestures to layered hues and lush drips of pigment--he collapsed innumerable chromatic layers into one smooth, refined surface. Intense shades of red, white and blue are enriched with under-layers of green, orange and grey. Flags I is closely related to a painting he was working on at the same time, Two Flags (in 6 parts), and Johns managed to translate the visual distinction between the left flag, painted in encaustic, and the right, rendered in oil paint, by screening gloss varnish over just the right flag in the final stages of production.
Johns’ work at Simca, together with his efforts in other great printmaking studios during the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st with master printer John Lund in Johns own studio in Sharon, Conn., is part of an artistic life of constant experimentation with a variety of mediums - from encaustic to silkscreen, bronze to charcoal - intended to provoke a constant re-evaluation of everyday imagery. For an artist named for the Revolutionary War hero it is no surprise that the most potent and enduring motif Johns chose for this re-evaluation has been Old Glory. According to the artist, "With a slight reemphasis of elements, one finds that one can behave very differently toward [an image], see it in a different way.” (3)
(J. Johns, quoted in A. Pohlen, Interview mit Jasper Johns, Heute Kunst, May 1978, p. 21).
(J. Johns quoted in C. Geelhaar, Jasper Johns: Working Proofs, exh. cat., Kunstmuseum Basel, 1979, p. 69).
(J. Johns, op. Cit., p. 67)