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Jasper Johns (b. 1930)
Jasper Johns (b. 1930)
Jasper Johns (b. 1930)
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Jasper Johns (b. 1930)

Flags 1

Details
Jasper Johns (b. 1930)
Flags 1
signed and dated 'J. Johns '73' (lower right); inscribed and numbered 'I 36/65' (lower left)
silkscreen ink on J.B. Green paper
27 ½ x 35 in. (69.9 x 88.9 cm.)
Executed in 1973. This work is number 36 from an edition of 65 plus seven artist's proofs. Co-published by the artist and Simca Print Artists, Inc., New York, with their blindstamp.
Provenance
Private collection, Japan
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2010
Literature
Universal Limited Art Editions, The Prints of Jasper Johns 1960-1993: A Catalogue Raisonné, West Islip, New York, 1994, no. 128 (another example illustrated).

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Lot Essay

Along with Andy Warhol’s paintings of Coca-Cola bottles and Jackson Pollock’s Drip Paintings, Jasper Johns’s depictions of the American flag have become some of the best known and most celebrated works in the twentieth-century postwar art historical canon. Not affiliated with any one style or movement, Johns, along with Robert Rauschenberg, ignited the idea that would lead to American Pop Art and the other movements beyond. Flags 1 is a vibrant and rich example of the artist’s continuing interest in the philosophy of sign systems and semiotics while also alluding to his preoccupation with changing media and its effect on the finished artwork. “Using the design of the American flag took care of a great deal for me because I didn’t have to design it. So I went on to similar things like the targets - things the mind already knows. That gave me room to work on other levels.” (J. Johns, quoted in D. Sylvester, “Saluting the Flags,” exh. cat., London, Anthony d’Offay Gallery, Jasper Johns Flags 1955-1994, 1996, p. 15). By working with universal symbols instead of inventing his own, Johns created a paradoxically personal rumination on painting and the culture of images. 

One of Johns’s most recognizable subjects, the American flag has appeared again and again throughout his career. Inspired by a dream in 1954, Johns painted his first American flag while living in New York. Over the course of the next few years, he began to experiment with other symbolic images that included targets, numbers, and the very alphabet we use to communicate. Drawn to rendering impersonal images that are known almost intrinsically, Johns used these iconic forms to bridge the gap between nonrepresentational painting and figurative work. Each American flag exists not as a rendering of a specific flag, but of an invented symbol known to a vast majority of viewers. "The painting of a flag is always about a flag,” Johns once quipped, “but it is no more about a flag than it is about a brushstroke or about a color or about the physicality of the paint, I think" (J. Johns, quoted in D. Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London, 2002, p. 159). Executed in a variety of forms and media, including screenprinting, encaustic, and acrylic, each work reexamines and reframes a graphic that can refer to many things in many different instances. This multiplicity of meaning is important in understanding Johns’s work as it asks the viewer to contemplate the image or the symbol itself devoid of meaning.

Although the 1980s and beyond signaled the introduction of more personal subject matter into his work, including references to his own shadow and various objects that had some connection to the artist, Johns has returned again and again to the grouping of symbols and images that he began with in the 1950s. “The emblematic images from which Johns’s work is constructed are a group of family and friends to whom he is fiercely loyal. But even within this the flag seems special. He returns to it again and again as a musician returns to a favorite theme or set of chords, a poet to a particular metre” (D. Sylvester, quoted in J. Johns and D. Sylvester (eds.), Jasper Johns Flags 1955-1994, London and New York, 1996, p. 6). His continued inquiry into American flags, targets, and other symbols allow Johns to do away with the decision-making process when it came to the subject itself. Instead he could focus on the methods and medium he was using in each work to a more intense degree. Works such as the present example show an intense interest in process and procedure, demonstrated by the careful application of each layer of star and stripe, each bit of red, white, and blue.

One of the most significant living American artists, Johns has continued to create new works that question the world around us. The fact that Flags 1 was created nearly twenty years after the initial flag painting and still retains that same intense attention to detail and method is a testament to the artist’s unrelenting curiosity and drive to create. “Johns was precocious, but it’s quite a common phenomenon for artists to produce masterpieces before they are thirty. What is rare, really rare, especially in our century, is to do that and then, like Johns, be producing masterpieces forty years later” (Ibid., p. 15). Through an evolving cycle of reinvention and recycled imagery, Johns adds to the conversation that helped birth Pop Art, Conceptual Art, and Minimalism. His influence on entire generations of artists cannot be understated as he pushed the focus away from the spontaneity of Abstract Expressionism and toward the careful, cerebral production of art that, although seemingly basic and mundane in form, urges the viewer’s mind to go beyond mere representation and into a deeper understanding of visual language.

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