Executed in 1973, Flags I is the definitive masterpiece of Jasper Johns' prolific career as a printmaker. Johns constantly experimented with a variety of mediums to actively provoke an endless re-evaluation of everyday imagery. 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" (J. Johns quoted in C. Geelhaar, Jasper Johns: Working Proofs, exh. cat., Kunstmuseum Basel, 1979, p. 67). Working from a photograph of his painting Two Flags, Johns renders Flags I with the same staggering beauty, but with new wonder and visual complexity.
Introduced to the screen-print technique by Andy Warhol in 1960, Johns was initially uncertain as to whether the process would suit his work; he could not envision the broad use of flat single-tone color his compositions, which regularly engaged the juxtaposition between transparency and opacity. However, by 1973, Johns had gained such technical expertise with the technique that he was able to convey certain painterly nuances and subtle complexities that were out of reach even for his hand-painted compositions.
With master printer Hiroshi Kawanishi at Simca Print Artists Inc., Johns devised a series of stages and screens 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"(J. Johns, op. Cit., p. 69). Executed in a range of painterly marks--from short, rough gestures to layered hues and lush drips of pigment--Johns collapses the innumerable chromatic layers of the work into one smooth, refined surface.
"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" (J. Johns, quoted in A. Pohlen, "Interview mit Jasper Johns," Heute Kunst, May 1978, p. 21). Since Johns' first rendering of Old Glory in 1954, the artist has continued co-opting the iconic motif to illustrate how the most familiar images are hardly considered. For the artist, however, the patriotic emblem was by no means a neutral one--named for the Revolutionary War hero Sergeant William Jasper, he served in the Korean War and was educated through the GI Bill. Flags I holds special poignancy, as it evokes at once the generational hope of the post-war period, as well as the turbulent years after, which tested the patriotism of the entire country as the Vietnam War drew on.