Flags 1 by Jasper Johns: A masterpiece of printmaking

How the artist created a work praised as the most painterly and vivid of all his silkscreen prints — offered in our Prints & Multiples sale on 26-27 April

‘To me the flag turned out to be something I had never observed before,’ explained Jasper Johns in a 1978 interview. ‘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.’

Executed in 1973, Flags I  is a masterpiece of Johns’ prolific 50-year career as a printmaker. Larger than usual, and rendered in rich, multi-layered colour, the work has been praised as the most painterly and vivid of all his silkscreen works, and is the headline lot in the Prints & Multiples sale on 26-27 April at Christie’s New York.

Jasper Johns (b. 1930), Flags I, 1973. Screenprint in colours, on J.B. Green paper, signed, titled and dated in pencil, numbered 5965 (there were also 7 artists proofs), co-published by the artist and Simca Print Artists, Inc., New York, with their blindstamp, the full sheet, in very good condition, framed. Sheet 27 38 x 35 ¼ in. (695 x 895 mm.) Estimate $800,000-1,200,000. This work is

Jasper Johns (b. 1930), Flags I, 1973. Screenprint in colours, on J.B. Green paper, signed, titled and dated in pencil, numbered 59/65 (there were also 7 artist's proofs), co-published by the artist and Simca Print Artists, Inc., New York, with their blindstamp, the full sheet, in very good condition, framed. Sheet: 27 3/8 x 35 ¼ in. (695 x 895 mm.) Estimate: $800,000-1,200,000. This work is offered in Prints & Multiples, 26-27 April at Christie’s New York

Introduced to the silkscreen 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 colour was not an obvious choice for an artist whose compositions regularly engaged a juxtaposition between transparency and opacity. However, by 1973, Johns was deploying it with such technical expertise that he was able to convey certain painterly nuances and subtle complexities that were out of reach of even his hand-painted compositions. 

With the help of master printer Hiroshi Kawanishi at Simca Artist Prints, Inc., Johns devised a series of 31 screens used in five stages that allowed him to create a richness and depth of colour rarely seen in silkscreened works.

‘By adding a rather large number of screens and having the stencil openings follow the shapes of brushstrokes,’ the artist explained, ‘I have tried to achieve a different type of complexity, one in which the eye no longer focuses on the flatness of the colours and the sharpness of the edges. Of course, this may constitute an abuse of the medium, of its true nature.’ 

Employing 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 Johns was working on at the same time, Two Flags (in 6 parts), and the artist 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 and other great printmaking studios during the second half of the 20th century, and then into the 21st with master printer John Lund in Johns’ own studio in Sharon, Connecticut, is part of an artistic life of constant experimentation. The use of a variety of mediums — from encaustic to silkscreen, bronze to charcoal — is intended to provoke a constant re-evaluation of everyday imagery.

For an artist named after a hero of the Revolutionary War, it is no surprise that the most potent and enduring motif Johns chose for this re-evaluation has been Old Glory. According to Johns, ‘With a slight re-emphasis of elements, one finds that one can behave very differently towards [an image], see it in a different way.’