The incredible story behind Flag by Jasper Johns

Johns’s most famous work took in the Civil War, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and Egyptology - here's how
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Flag (1955) by Jasper Johns
Flag (1955) by Jasper Johns

We guess that like us you enjoyed reading the various theories behind the white flags hoisted over Brooklyn Bridge last week. As quite a few tweets observed, the artist Jasper Johns created a series of all-white 'stars and stripes' in the mid 1950s, alongside his most famous rendering of the star-spangled banner, Flag (1955).

And while Johns possibly isn’t among the foremost suspects currently being sought, the incident did make us ponder his flags and the meaning behind them once more. Why the recurrent theme? And how did this painting of the stars and stripes both introduce Johns as a key New York artist, and bring his painting into dialogue with Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, as well as the Civil War, and ancient Egyptian artistic techniques? Luckily, Isabelle Loring Wallace, author of our forthcoming Jasper Johns Phaidon Focus book, was on hand to fill in the backstory.

“In the early 1950s, while working closely with Robert Rauschenberg in adjacent lofts in lower Manhattan, Johns resolved to be an artist. With this novel sense of determination, Johns did two things that would help establish his identity and significance as an artist. First, he systematically destroyed all existing work in his possession, vowing that henceforth his art would be free of perceptible debt to other artists. Secondly, he painted Flag, a curiously mature work inspired by a dream in which he saw himself painting an American flag. Moderate in scale it has none of the visionary qualities one might expect given its purported origins in the artist’s unconscious. 

 

Jasper Johns at Pearl Street studio in 1955. Photograph by Robert Rauschenberg
Jasper Johns at Pearl Street studio in 1955. Photograph by Robert Rauschenberg

“As many commentators have noted, Johns represented Flag’s motif faithfully – a decision that was, in some respects, more mystifying than had he deviated from the flag’s conventional form. More like a riddle than an expression of patriotism or unconscious zeal, Flag is, in many respects, deeply challenging. 

"Perhaps most obviously, Flag serves to question what a painting is, and how it is to be differentiated from the object it represents. Is Flag a painting or a flag, or both? Flag does not conclusively answer that question; instead, like so many of Johns’s creations it establishes a line of inquiry and asserts its significance for the practice and history of art.

“The Belgian Surrealist René Magritte was also interested in the relationship between an artwork and its subject matter, and in the months prior to Flag’s execution, Johns visited an exhibition of Magritte’s work and saw a painting [The Treachery of Images]  that directly addressed this issue. 

 

White Flag (1955) by Jasper Johns
White Flag (1955) by Jasper Johns

“In 1955, Abstract Expressionists such as Pollock and Willem de Kooning dominated the New York art scene. Their paintings were large and mostly abstract, and a high premium was set on their expressivity, as well as the formal elements that brought that dimension of their work to life: composition, colour and brushwork. 

“A close look at Flag’s surface confirms that Johns shared his contemporaries’ interest in the material properties of paint. In most other respects, however, Flag stood apart from its context: in an era that prized abstraction, Johns chose recognizable, commonplace subject matter.”

“Flag is covered with a lush array of drips and fleshy brushstrokes, initially confirming Johns’s kinship with mid-century American painting. Yet Johns’s motif and technique tell a different story – one of endings and beginnings, and the passage that comes in between. Begun in the fashionable medium of oil-based enamel paint, Flag was completed using the anachronistic medium of encaustic in which pigment is mixed with hot wax and, in Flag’s case, strips of newspaper and fabric to which the coloured encaustic adhered. As Johns explained it, encaustic allowed him to be more efficient and, at the same time, more deliberate in his gestures. In other words, because pigmented wax sets quickly, Johns could add another mark or strip of saturated paper or cloth with the assurance that any previously laid marks would remain unaffected. In this way, each discrete trace was preserved, effectively embalmed. 

 

The cover of our new Phaidon Focus title dedicated to Johns
The cover of our new Phaidon Focus title dedicated to Johns

"Long out of favour and largely forgotten, encaustic was an ancient technique most closely associated with a group of remarkable Egyptian funerary portraits. Affixed to the deceased’s mummy prior to burial, these highly realistic portraits from the second century were designed to preserve the image of the dead, just as Flag and its ghostly white pendant White Flag, preserved aspects of contemporary American painting at the very moment when Johns was laying to rest various aspects of this moribund tradition. A pivotal object within the history of modern American art, Flag was a beginning for Johns, but for Abstract Expressionism it was also the beginning of the end. For in the paintings that followed Johns’s dramatic debut, this audacious newcomer systematically challenged every aspect of mid-century painting, beginning with the tactile brushstrokes that are arrested in Flag.

“Although Johns was loath to admit it, something else was preserved in Flag too. For while it  established his reputation as an artist and delivered him from his origins in the agrarian South, it also affirmed the influence of these roots on his thinking. As the artist belatedly revealed in an interview in 1990. "In Savannah, Georgia, in a park, there is a statue of Sergeant William Jasper. Once I was walking through this park with my father, and he said that we were named for him. Whether or not that is in fact true or not, I don’t know. Sergeant Jasper lost his life raising the American flag over a fort.’”

We hope you enjoyed this edited abstract. You can preorder copy of this new title here, and browse through other titles in the Phaidon Focus series here.


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