The American flag belongs to Jasper Johns; since his first painting of the subject in 1954 he has made almost one hundred versions, in all the media that he uses. These include paintings, drawings, watercolors, prints in several techniques and lead and bronze relief sculptures. The subject has been called one of Johns' obsessions, along with targets, numbers and letters. The flag, however, remains of particular importance to him, since he has returned to it regularly over the last forty-five years, especially at moments of change in his life.
Johns' first flag was made after he had seen the image in a dream; he was a young man in New York, who was, as he put it "going to be a painter." He had his dream, bought the materials and executed the painting now in The Museum of Modern Art (fig. 1). Johns was clear when he described his found subject: "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" (in L. Steinberg, "Jasper Johns, The First Seven Years of His Art", Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth Century Art, New York, 1972, p. 31). The flag was a perfect vehicle for Johns--epigrammatic, playful and at the same time sufficiently endowed with political meaning to be disturbing in the world outside art. David Sylvester lists it as one of the great conceits (intellectual ideas that structure arguments) of twentieth-century art. "The conceit in Flag is to represent an object in such a way that its edges coincide with the edges of the canvas, producing the correlated effect that the space intervening between the object and the spectator is squeezed out of existence" (D. Sylvester, "Saluting the Flags," in exh. cat., op. cit., London, 1996, p. 11). Johns could thus be ironic about painting--the object that he had created referred to a similar two-dimensional object and did not pretend to be anything but flat. Its subject enforced an "all over" image, since the flag was the same size as the painting. It also enforced the viewer's renewed attention, since, as Johns had pointed out, the design was known but rarely observed. By rendering it as a painting, Johns required from us the close attention of a kind different from our habitual observation of the flag. It was also a shocking image; more than two-thirds of Americans fly their own flag on the Fourth of July, and its significance as the symbol of freedom at the height of the Cold War was unquestionable.
The way in which the first Flag was painted was also important; Rauschenberg has described the Abstract Expressionists, "with their grief and art passion and action painting, they let their brushstrokes show," and both he and Johns display the brushstrokes in their paintings of this period. But, as Sylvester has pointed out, they work with a sense of the absurd in art and life far removed from the portentousness of the Abstract Expressionists. Johns' painting reveals precisely how it was made. The personal is minimized; there is a sense that the evidence of individual brushstrokes is inevitable because of the medium. Johns chose to work in encaustic, where pigment is suspended in melted wax as it is applied to the canvas. The wax dries quickly, leaving the trace of the brushstroke and the need to build up, to construct the surface. This is unlike oil paint where the fluid paint remains malleable for a considerable period and can be applied in thin layers as well as thick. Johns began to use oil paint regularly at the end of the 1950s, making the gesture in his paintings more pronounced, and used the mediums in combination in 1962, in Zone, for example.
Johns developed the subject of the flag by depicting it on white and colored grounds, by using the complementary colors to provoke after-images in red, white and blue, and by combining more than one flag in the same work. In 1958 he made a series of images based on three superimposed flags. In 1960 he made a drawing and subsequently several paintings of two flags depicted one above the other. In 1969 Johns depicted the flag oriented vertically for the first time. (The flag is manufactured commercially in two versions, one to be flown horizontally and the second to be draped vertically. In both cases the stars are placed at the top left of the flag, but their orientation and arrangement is changed.) He made a drawing of a single flag oriented this way in 1969 and a gray encaustic painting of the subject in 1971. In 1969 he made two drawings of two vertical flags, one recalling the 1960 drawing of two horizontal flags and the other in the Menil Collection showing two flags with their corners turned (fig. 2). He made a painting of two vertical gray flags between 1973 and 1977. He made colored versions of the two-flag image in drawing, lithograph and silkscreen in 1972 and 1973, including a watercolor in his own collection, a lithograph and a silkscreen. He has made two subsequent, smaller versions of the image in 1986 and 1987.
The present work is the largest of the versions of this image; it is made on two sets of three canvas panels, the left painted in oil, the right in encaustic. There is a clear difference in handling in the panels, an effect that Johns was to repeat in the first of the crosshatch paintings, Scent (Ludwig Forum fr Internationale Kunst, Aachen) of the following year. In this painting we are able to see the difference between the translucent paint in the encaustic panel which reveals the green (complementary) underpainting and the relative solidity of the opaque oil panel on the left. Johns questions the affective qualities of the media he uses by placing panels of different types but the same subject side by side. Later in the same year he asked the same questions in what was for him the new medium of silkscreen. Two Flags, printed by Hiroshi Kawanishi, uses thirty screens to create another version of the two-flag image and to indicate the significance of changes in the texture and formulation of the marks he has made.
In 1973 Johns was working in three studios: in a converted bank on Houston Street in New York, in St. Martin and in a newly acquired house in Stony Point in upstate New York. His work was changing dramatically, as he was recovering images from Untitled, 1972, a large four-panel painting that in part recapitulated earlier themes and in part, notably in a crosshatched panel, adumbrated a shift to an abstracted subject matter. Scent, with its clear reference in its title to Jackson Pollock's last painting, was made in Houston Street, the present painting in St. Martin, and the subsequent gray Two Flags (1973-1977) in Stony Point. We could argue that Johns' return to the image of the flag is in part to anchor the major changes in his working practice (and his personal life), and in part to enable him to understand the combination of media in a single work. He also used oil and encaustic side by side in, for example, both Scent and in Corpse and Mirror of 1974 (Private collection; fig. 4). The result, in the present work, is an extraordinarily bravura performance of painterly skills, conceived and executed at a large scale. It transcends the drawn forms of the flags of the previous years and clearly anticipates the complexity and facture of the crosshatch paintings that follow.
John Cage, who had introduced Johns to the house in Stony Point (since he had lived in a house across the creek) and who has been the most astute commentator on Johns, wrote in 1964, "Beginning with the flag, a painting was made, beginning, that is, with structure, the division of the whole into parts corresponding to the parts of a flag, a painting was made which both obscures and clarifies the underlying structure. A precedent is in poetry, the sonnet: by means of language, caesurae, iambic pentameter, licence and rhymes to obscure and clarify the grand division of the fourteen lines into eight and six" (J. Cage, Jasper Johns: Stories and Ideas in A Year from Monday Lectures and Writings, London, 1968, p. 74). The greatest sonnets (Cage completes our thought and mentions Shakespeare and Johns) incorporate the personal into the structure of the verse: an apt metaphor for Johns' continuing meditations on his personal themes through the public symbol of nationhood and courage.
(fig. 1) Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954-1955
The Museum of Modern Art, New York (Gift of Philip Johnson in honor of Alfred H. Barr, Jr.)
(fig. 2) Jasper Johns, Two Flags, 1969
The Menil Collection, Houston
(Photo by Paul Hester, Houston)
(fig. 3) Jasper Johns, Corpse and Mirror, 1974
Sale, Christie's, New York, 10 November 1997, lot 10