From its earliest inclusion in the mid-1950s, the American flag in Jasper Johns’s oeuvre has become one of the most cherished icons in the history of Modern art, providing endless fuel for his imagination. The flag recurs repeatedly throughout the artist’s career, thus making it one of his most important motifs. In Flag, Johns returns to discover anew its unlimited possibilities. In this painterly evocation, Johns creates an image both lively and serene. Its palette is deliberately limited to the tonal qualities of black acrylic and carborundum, whose surface is alive with daubs of the brush; visible in the broad strokes of the stripes to the meticulous delineation of the stars. The stars and stripes emerge from a dark, shadowy realm in this masterful iteration, as if lit from within by some unknown light source. Rendered in delicate, considered strokes, Johns creates a new drawing atop a preexisting image—in this case a lithograph of the American flag from 1972. It embodies Johns’ commitment to “seeking the familiar as a foundation for understanding the new” (R. Castleman, Jasper Johns: A Print Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1986, p. 22).
Drawing has long been an important medium for Johns, which he has described as both a necessity and a pleasure. Rather than using drawing as a preparatory aid or preliminary study for a later painting, Johns predominantly created drawings after the fact. This is particularly the case in a series of graphite-on-paper flag drawings from 1955, in which Johns re-created his seminal Flag painting using the humble materials of pencil and paper. The tonal variations that Johns teased out from the graphite—from soft, delicate shading to sharp, quick delineation—show not only his mastery of the medium, but also share formal similarities with the present Flag. By replicating a known image in a different medium, Johns was able to observe the interplay between the two, and this allowed him to examine familiar images in a different way. Such a process of re-examination and re-discovery served him well over the course of his career. He exhausted nearly every media imaginable in rendering the flag: from painting, drawing and printmaking, to sculpmetal and bronze. Flag is a profound encapsulation of this practice—a hybrid of sorts that is part drawing, part painting, part print. It serves as a brilliant amalgamation of the distinctive attributes that divergent media impart upon a pre-established icon, one that Johns spent a lifetime exploring.
The American flag is perhaps the most important recurring motif in Jasper Johns’ work. In addition to making flags in different media, Johns experimented with a number of different formats: superimposed flags, flags paired with blank fields, flags drawn backwards, the flag doubled or stacked on top of another. ”It becomes clear as he returns again and again to familiar images that he seeks not solutions per se, but further values, insights, and emotions” (Ibid.). Indeed, the artist continues the exploration of a complex, multi-faceted flag within the present work, in which he applies painterly daubs of acrylic and a carborundum wash (an abrasive used in the printing process that Johns used as pigment) to an already intricate image of the flag. The art historian Pepe Karmel describes: “In a sensuous, understated reworking of the image...Johns paints over the 1972 print with a wash of carborundum. The carborundum wash shares the contradictory qualities of the graphite wash that Johns used in his drawings of the early 1960s. It has both a granular texture and a gunmetal sheen, distinctively different from the matte quality of lithographic inks” (P. Karmel, describing a similar Flag, “Cancellation / Creation, Jasper Johns: Drawing Over Prints,” in Jasper Johns: Drawing Over, exh. cat., Castelli Gallery, New York, 2010, pp. 21-22). This technique has the added effect of energizing and activating the surface as the acrylic and carborundum make clear the deviations in format from the underlying print—itself the result of a complex, painstaking process of re-invention and discovery.
Flag displays the subtleties of Johns’s technique, particularly in the interplay of the materials used. The range in density, texture and transparency that Johns achieves is nothing short of breathtaking. Translucent washes made with a thinned-down brush, deftly applied in soft daubs, allow the brightness of the paper to emerge with a subtle luminosity. Meanwhile, darker, more opaque areas punctuate the sheet, lend the surface a palpable sense of three-dimensionality as the contrast between light and dark enlivens and activates the staid design of the flag. Indeed, there is a restrained elegance that emerges from this depiction, as the flag itself seems to glow from within. Again, Pepe Karmel describes “The striped quadrants of the image lose their ‘flag’ quality and become passages of pure abstraction. (Indeed, they look like fragments of paintings by Frank Stella or Brice Marden, artists profoundly influenced by Johns). …The outlines of the stars in the 1972 print are almost lost in the vivid alternation of light and dark throughout the field. The overpainting in the 1994 drawing suppresses the value contrasts in the field, so that the white outlines of the stars emerge
more clearly, springing into sight the way that the actual stars do on a moonless night”
(P. Karmel, ibid., p. 22).
Working with a deliberately restricted palette, Johns produces a stunning depiction, creating a brilliant evocation of the American flag. Rendered in a grisaille palette, by nature of their materials, Flag visually mimics the graphite drawings of flags that Johns created earlier in his career. Thus the present lot provides a concise visual foil to the monochrome flag paintings of that era, such as his White Flag of 1955, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
As part of a series, the work relates to a small group of similar Flag drawings, one of which belongs to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Johns’s persistent exploration and reinvestigation manages to make his most recognizable emblem into something entirely new, allowing one to see the familiar image with fresh eyes.