The American flag was Jasper Johns’ breakthrough image in 1954, and remains the most recognizable motif in his oeuvre. Flag of 1958 is a mature iteration of the flag, created at a seminal moment in the artist’s career. Drawing has long been an important medium for Johns, which he has described as both a necessity and a pleasure. In the small but graphically-potent Flag, Johns revels in the tonal variations that he teases out from the graphite, in the soft, delicate shading of the flag’s background and the sharp, diagonal cross-hatching of the stars and their clearly-delineated outlines. He renders the flag’s stripes in energetic scribbles that are at once lyrical and lively. Created in 1958, Johns’ Flag not only explores the symbolic impact of the American flag as a well-known image, but also questions the very nature of drawing itself, pushing it to its limits by nature of the densely-layered tangle of graphite that nearly bursts from its seams.
The practice of drawing allowed Johns to explore the way in which an image could be constructed, which proved to be especially useful in the case of the flag, a theme Johns returned to frequently throughout his career in a variety of different media. Rather than creating drawings as preliminary sketches for his paintings, Johns nearly always rendered his drawings after a painting had been completed. By using the flag as a readymade image, Johns freed himself from the slavish preoccupation of inventing new imagery, and instead readily experimented with the nature of drawing itself. As a longtime collector of drawings (Cézanne, de Kooning, Seurat and Old Master drawings make up his collection), Johns was particularly interested in the inherent qualities that the essential act of putting pencil to paper could convey: “Drawings tend to be monochromatic and, often, smaller in scale than paintings. … The best drawings tend to seem more succinct, more austere, more schematic, more naked, closer to thought, closer to the force from which they arise.” (J. Johns, quoted in Richard Shiff, “Flicker in the Work: Jasper Johns in Conversation with Richard Shiff,” Master Drawings, Autumn 2006, p. 279).
Perhaps because of the limited nature of its materials, drawing—drawing consisting only of pencil and paper—is inherently more two-dimensional than painting. Johns’ painted flags involved oil and often encaustic on a raised surface of stretched canvas, so his drawings of flags are more inherently flat and minimal, with an honesty and directness that particularly suited his needs. The American flag motif lent itself readily to this exercise, as Johns described: “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...that the mind already knows. That gave me room to work on other levels” (J. Johns, quoted in Jasper Johns: Flags, exh. cat., London, Anthony D’Offay Gallery, 1996, p. 15).
Ironically, the graphite drawings are rendered in a grisaille palette by nature of their materials, which visually mimics Jasper Johns’ grey paintings, which he would pursue throughout the course of his career. The drawings also share common affinities with the monochrome flag paintings of the same era, most notably Johns’ White Flag of 1955, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Flag also lends itself to the same format as Johns’ Flag on Orange Field of 1957 and Alley Oop of 1958, in which a central image is presented upon an expansive, vertically-oriented background.
Critics have suggested that the American flag in Jasper Johns’ work is an autobiographical reference, since he was named after the notable Revolutionary War figure Sergeant William Jasper, who is said to have bravely raised the flag during combat against the British in 1776. Until Johns appropriated the flag in his art, it had been primarily used by Folk artists, so that it had a dual-fold reading—as an international symbol of freedom and liberty, and alternately in the artistic arena as kitsch. In rendering the flag, Johns conflates these ideas while simultaneously exploring his own, idiosyncratic style, which is all the more pertinent given the highly-charged political era in which it was produced.
At once intimate yet audacious in its imagery and technique, Flag Drawing entices the viewer into the work’s carefully-orchestrated interplay of representation and abstraction. It’s complicated surface captivates our attention and propels us to look closer, with a renewed curiosity, as Johns reinvents the genre of drawing by depicting the most recognizable motif of his illustrious career.