"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."
(Johns, quoted in C.Geelhaar, Jasper Johns: Working Proofs, Basel, Kunstmuseum Basel, 1979)
Paradoxically, Flags I is Johns's most painterly graphic version of the subject, executed in a media rarely celebrated for its richness of surface. Johns was initially skeptical as to whether the screenprint 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. It was Andy Warhol who first introduced Johns to the screenprint process, and perhaps it was Warhol's own move away from the "machined" look in the late 1960s, and the introduction of his own visible hand in his screenprints, which may have led Johns to reconsider the process. Above all it was the Japanese master printers who ran Simca Print Artist's Inc. in New York who provided an entirely new approach to the medium and who showed Johns the potential of the process for achieving results not possible through other means.
Working from a photograph of his own painting Two Flags executed the same year, Johns and Hiroshi Kawanishi of Simca devised a series of five stages and thirty-one screens which when combined produced the final composition. The compositional format of Two Flags was readily translated; however, Johns also wanted to retain the visual complexity of the painting's encaustic and oil paint layers. The demarcation between the left (encaustic) and right (oil paint) flags was replicated through the use of a gloss varnish which was screened onto the right hand flag in the penultimate stages of production.
From a few paces back the composition is coherent and powerful. On closer examination the screenprint exhibits a richly complex and painterly surface. This duality makes Flags I a virtuoso performance in the field of graphic art.