Ed Ruscha's Our Flag paradoxically views an American icon, as did his iconic images of burning gas stations and the Hollywood sign. Ruscha laced this rendition of a familiar emblem with an enigmatic mix of nationalism and something darker, more sinister. The American flag became a Pop Art standby in the 1950s when artists such as Jasper Johns and Claes Oldenburg took the object, detached it from its emotional associations and flattened it into an aesthetic object. With this rendition, Ruscha uses the flag, not so much as a ready-made sign, but rather as an object alive with both figurative and symbolic meaning.
In Ruscha's portrait, the "Stars and Stripes" blows majestically in a strong breeze. Ruscha handles the paint expertly, seamlessly depicting the flag's voluptuous folds of fabric. He enhances the fabric's rolling nature with the deep shadows created by the material's ripples. Ruscha juxtaposes these rich undulations with contrasting hard lines of red and white stripes, rising and falling across the flag's surface. He sharply contrasts the flag's fluid, constantly shifting nature with the rigid flagpole's austerity. The flagpole cuts diagonally into the composition and sets up an opulent textural dichotomy that resonates throughout this work.
Rich with historical associations, the flag has long embodied the American dream. Generations of citizens have rallied around it, in times of both battle and national celebration. The reverence in which the American people hold the flag cannot be underestimated. But Ruscha's flag is not a typical depiction of national pride. Although at first glance the flag appears to be flying proudly in the wind, the view we see here is actually the "back" of the flag, the reverse of the view normally offered. Resurrecting the theme of Ruscha's earlier work, 1977's The Back of Hollywood, he flips this usual view and in the process exposes the image to a completely new reading and interpretation. Playing with the subversive connotations of the "underside," Ruscha takes the usual emotions associated with the American flag and turns them on their head, taking a view associated with an alternative vision of America. He enhances these overtones with dark gathering clouds, shrouding the flag and suffocating what would otherwise be an idyllic American sunset. It recalls Robert Frank's seminal image The Americans: Parade - Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955; Ruscha similarly plays with what the flag has come to represent and forces us to rethink our attitudes towards it in a contemporary context.
Our Flag is one of five renditions of the American flag that Ruscha painted between 1985 and 1987. One remains in the artist's collection, and the other three are in prestigious private and museum collections, including the collection of Emily Fischer Landau and the Bank of America collection. An entry in Ruscha's studio notebook says he began working on the painting in the spring of 1987 and based the image on a photograph of a large flag that he took on the Santa Monica highway near the Pacific Ocean. This work is the only one in this series that shows the "reverse" of the flag, with the others showing it flying in a more traditional viewpoint with the flagpole on the left.
The strong diagonal at work in Our Flag is a technique Ruscha developed in the 1960s in images of Standard Stations and 20th Century Fox to add drama and a cinematic quality to the images. Ruscha pointedly riposted to the precepts of artistic mastery that had dominated the art world under the Abstract Expressionists' 1950s reign, with his hard lines and choice of seemingly banal scenes that anyone could encounter along the roadside. He started out painting in the style of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline while at the Chouinard Art Institute (now California Institute of the Arts). However, he soon came under the sway of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg's artistic provocations when he encountered printed reproductions of their work in 1957. Their artistic vision was a revelation for Ruscha, who saw Johns and Rauschenberg innovatively endorsing the popular and commercial sources that had already attracted Ruscha. He frequented the influential Ferus Gallery from the late 1950s, and was on the scene when Warhol made his landmark debut there in the summer of 1962, perplexing his audience with his Campbell's soup cans. He was also on hand for the Duchamp retrospective curated by Walter Hopps, which brought his ready-mades and other agents provocateurs to the Pasadena Art Museum in Fall 1963. Ruscha quickly became part of the Pop revolution in painting and sculpture. His work was included in the 1962 "New Painting of Common Objects" exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum (the first show to assemble Pop artists), as well as the "Pop USA" show at the Oakland Art Museum in 1963, and had his first solo show at the Ferus Gallery that year. As Ruscha recalled, "I felt a great kinship with Andy [Warhol] and Roy Lichtenstein because it was like a logical departure from the kind of painting that was happening at the time" (E. Ruscha, quoted in Ibid., p. 138).
The artists Ruscha admired, such as Johns, Warhol, Lichtenstein and Duchamp, each laced their art with a strong wit, which was to become a hallmark of Ruscha's own oeuvre. "Absurdity and paradox had real meaning for me as an artist," Ruscha has tellingly divulged. Such is the tone of one of his most notorious compositions, Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire, which shares important connections to its fiery predecessor, Burning Gas Station, as well as the 1964 book that Ruscha produced titled Various Small Fires and Milk. After viewing the new building from a helicopter, Ruscha recounted, "I knew at the time that I started the picture that I was going to assault that building somehow" (E. Ruscha, quoted in Ibid, p. 45). Both paintings take subjects that have hallowed cultural associations and send them up in flames - in the case of Burning Gas Station, one of Edward Hopper's quiet meditations on the modernism of America seems to have suddenly combusted. The painting's uncanny effect recalls Magritte's images of mundane objects set aflame, cast in Ruscha's unmistakable mold, shaped by the wide-open and sprawling Los Angeles landscape. Like these works, this painting is an incisive masterpiece that cuts like a scalpel to the American national consciousness. Particularly resonant for the present political moment, Our Flag forcefully confronts our democratic ideals at their very core.