One of the most important painters of the 20th century, Jasper Johns is famous for his iconic use of well-known objects, such as targets, maps, ale cans, numbers, and yes, flags. He has painted many versions of the American flag throughout his career, often incorporating encaustic (a wax process in which pigments are added) or plaster to give his paintings more dimension.
Created in the age of McCarthyism, “Flag” (1954-1955) was the first (and perhaps most popular) version of his flag imagery. Johns is said to have first dreamed of the flag, but the painting is rich in contemporary symbolism. As noted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Johns liked to use “things the mind already knows.”
The artist’s style and images
While Johns arrived in New York from the South during the age of Abstract Expressionism and befriended many of those artists (such as Rauschenberg and Pollock), his own work has been called “Neo-Dada,” “Pop Art,” “Conceptual Art,” and “Abstract Expressionism.” Whatever label is applied, it is clear that the merging of new art movements, from Pop Art to Minimalism, all played a role in his work. However, unlike the gestural abstraction of the recent art past, the techniques employed by Jasper Johns “stresse[d] conscious control rather than spontaneity,” according to the Met.
He would also use the same, familiar objects again and again to make different statements in different time periods. His first “Flag” was born of the age of McCarthy. He would then go on to paint a large white, minimalistic work, “White Flag” (1955), followed by various prints and drawings of flags, including an oil on paper “Flag“ (1957). In 1958, he painted “Three Flags,” which featured a reverse perspective of flags layered one on another. And his flag imagery would return again prominently in a 1987 intaglio print.
Flag and its many meanings
The first and most important flag, however, was done in 1954, when the flag seemed to be everywhere in the news. The McCarthy hearings (questioning the loyalty of citizens to their government, as symbolized by the flag) had finally ended. This occurred just three days before Flag Day. That Flag Day was symbolic, as well, as President Dwight Eisenhower signing an amendment to the Constitution that added the phrasing “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. The Iwo Jima statue (with its flag-raising imagery) was also dedicated in 1954.
Some critics, however, have suggested a much more personal attachment by the artist to the symbolism of the flag. He was a Korean War veteran, but more importantly, he was named for Sergeant William Jasper, a Revolutionary War hero who was famous for raising the American flag during an important battle.
As a result, Jasper Johns’ flag becomes not only a symbol for the nation and its internal turmoil, but also as an autobiographical link to his past. In fact, over his lifetime, Johns would paint more than 40 images of the flag.
Simplicity of imagery
Then there is the simplicity of the flag. As noted earlier, the artist tended to favor familiar objects as his themes. For the artist, selecting such a well known, simple object allowed him to focus fully on his painting technique. Johns has often said that choosing a flat, two-dimensional object “freed him” from creating a design and instead allowed him to fully engage in the painting process.
It’s clear that the idea and image of the flag have changed for Johns throughout the years. Assigning a particular meaning to any flag image by the artist may be one that is fluid rather than static.