"[Johns'] American flag was a sign of history proper dropped on the toes of art history. It laid nonchalant claim to something momentous that everybody knew, if they knew what was good for them" (P. Schjeldahl, "The drawings of Jasper Johns," Columns and Catalogues, New York, 1994, p. 25).
Executed in 1973, Flags I is the definitive masterpiece of Jasper Johns' prolific career as a printmaker. Large in scale, and rendered in rich, multi-layered color, the work has been praised as the most painterly and vivid of all his silkscreen works. Johns constantly experimented with a variety of mediums--from encaustic to silkscreen, bronze to charcoal--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 own painting Two Flags from the same year, 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 screen-print process would suit his work; the broad use of flat single-tone color was not something he envisioned applying to his compositions, which regularly engaged the juxtaposition between transparency and opacity. However, by 1973, Johns approached the series with such technical expertise that he was able to convey certain painterly nuances and subtle complexities through silkscreen that were even out of reach for his hand-painted compositions.
With the help of master printer Hiroshi Kawanishi at Simca Artist Prints, Inc., Johns devised a series of five stages and thirty-one 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--he collapses innumerable chromatic layers into one smooth, refined surface. Pure shades of red, white and blue are enriched with under-layers of green, orange and grey. The artist even retained the visual distinction between the left flag, painted in encaustic, and the right, rendered in oil paint, by screening gloss varnish over just the right flag in the final stages of production.
"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, executed in 1973 and from the collection of Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, 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.
With master printer Hiroshi Kawanishi, working on a screenprint at Simca Print Artists, New York, 1980. Photograph by Katrina Martin.