Is it patriotic? Subversive? Both? Jonathan Jones on how Jasper Johns made a
provocative masterpiece out of the American flag
Monday April 21 2003
In a recent Simpsons episode, Bart's friend Milhouse vomits
on the American
flag, offending, as newsreader Kent Brockman reports, "flag hags
everywhere". The Simpsons, with its ambiguous patriotism, is in a tradition
of American art since the 1950s. What American artists up to and including
Matt Groening have done is to at once love and question the US. And perhaps
no artist ever did both quite so compactly as Jasper Johns when he painted
an American flag.
Johns, who has been an unlikely guest voice on The Simpsons, has an
exhibition of recent prints opening. But it is his almost 50-year-old Flag
that is his most current and contemporary work. So contemporary that some
people will find its large-scale presence on these pages offensive. It is
there in all its provocation: well, how do you like that?
In the past two years - as flying the flag on homes, public buildings, opera
houses and (momentarily) central Baghdad has become an American enthusiasm -
Johns has emerged as the last hope, or maybe the fig leaf, of the ambivalent
flag-waver. When a video of the concert for New York after the World Trade
Centre attacks was released in this country, Johns's Flag was on the cover.
When New York museums wanted to match the patriotic mood, they displayed not
just any flag, but Johns's flag: Three Flags (1958), a version owned by the
Whitney. Ambivalence is his thing. There are few works of art quite so
uncertain, so confounding - not just in its values and meaning, but even in
its status as an object or a sign - as Jasper Johns's Flag, made in its most
famous version in 1954-55.
The simple facts about Flag, which belongs to the Museum of Modern Art in
New York, are that it is a painting of a flag that looks just like a flag
pinned to the wall (except it stands forward from the wall, and its surface
is not at all the texture of a billowing banner). It is painted in a medium
called encaustic, a warm wax suspension that dries quickly as it cools.
Encaustic was used by ancient Egyptian painters of mummy portraits. Johns
used it, he said, for its speed of drying.
Describing Flag, you see it but you don't understand it. It is hard to say
why it is a work of art and not a flag. Because it is painted? But a flag
painted on the side of a building is still a flag, not art. Johns's Flag
might be accepted, with a sigh, as art. But as great art - as an icon of
modern American art? Why?
Johns's Flag was immediately acknowledged as a startling work of art when it
was first exhibited in New York, at a group show at the Leo Castelli gallery
in 1957. The critic Robert Rosenblum asked of Flag: "Is it blasphemous or
respectful, simple-minded or recondite?" Its brilliance, implied his
review, lay in these questions. The same lack of resolution impressed Alfred
H Barr Jr, director of the Museum of Modern Art, who visited Johns's first
solo show at Castelli in January and February 1958 - and bought Flag, along
with two Targets and a White Numbers, for the museum. So by early 1958,
Johns's Flag was accepted not just as an original work of art, but as one
worthy of inclusion in the world's leading modern art collection.
Someone should have told the art teacher of a shy high-school student called
Robert G Heft. In 1958, Alaska and Hawaii were about to become states,
increasing the number of stars on the flag from 48 to 50. Heft took it upon
himself to redesign the flag with 50 stars. He got a B+ for his labours (he
actually stitched the flag), because, said his teacher, "it lacked
originality. He said anybody could make the flag." But Congress accepted the
schoolboy's design, and it is the current American flag.
This patriotic little anecdote, part of the folklore of the American flag,
stands in revealing contrast to the making and ratification of Johns's Flag.
The new flag rendered Johns's painting, with its 48 stars, obsolete - as a
flag. But this just adds to the sense of estrangement, as if his is the flag
of another country, an alternate, counterfactual nation.
Heft's art teacher said anybody could make the flag. While there were still
art critics around in 1958 who said the same, and of course there still are,
the smart ones saluted Flag, seeing in it a gleeful subversion, not of any
national creed as such, but of conservatism, obviousness, literal-mindedness
- the notion that a flag must be a flag, that there is no room for
ambiguity. Yet Johns, like Heft (who became a patriotic politician), was
contributing to the history of America's most primal piece of popular
culture. They both worked in a homely, craft-like, hobby-making way. Heft
stitched his flag. Johns built his as an object with layers of encaustic
over collaged newsprint. It was one of the first works of art Johns made
after he destroyed his early efforts. He remembered that the image came to
him in a dream.
"One night I dreamed I painted a large American flag, and the next morning I
got up and I went out and bought the materials to begin it. And I did. I
worked on that painting a long time. It's a very rotten painting -
physically rotten - because I began it in house enamel paint, which you
paint furniture with, and it wouldn't dry quickly enough. Then I had in my
head this idea of something I had read or heard about: wax encaustic."
Johns's account of painting Flag stresses the homely, amateurish nature of
the way he went about it, first using the furniture paint, then a technique
that had not been widespread for thousands of years. He thought of himself
at this point, at the beginning of his public career, as inventing an art
specific to him: "I decided I would only allow myself to do what I couldn't
not do." His use of primitive craft techniques, his readiness to try
whatever came to hand, was part of a rejection of received ideas of what an
artist or a work of art is, a philosophical questioning. He was waiting for
something to do that he couldn't not do, and from that something he would
take his representation of the artist Jasper Johns. And the thing that came
to him, in a dream, was that he should paint a large American flag.
Lisa Simpson dreams about helping George Washington in a Simpsons episode
that has Washington complaining about the flag he ordered: "I'll take it,
but I'm not paying for it." Johns's almost folk-art method of making a flag
places him not at the margins but at the centre of the flag's history.
Legend has it that Washington himself designed the original version of the
stars and stripes, and that he gave his drawing to be worked up into a
banner to the most patriotic seamstress in American history, Betsy Ross, in
1777. The story allies the national leader and the seamstress, high state
interest and folk craft: that is, the myth of the flag's origin makes it a
piece of ver nacular art, a product of good honest American handicraft, like
Unfortunately the story is a fiction, first told by Elizabeth Ross's
grandson in the late 19th century. The stars and stripes does date from the
beginning of an independent US. In 1777, the Continental Congress passed a
Flag Act: "Resolved, That the flag of the United States be made of 13
stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be 13 stars, white in a
blue field, representing a new Constellation." In fact, the flag is a piece
of neo-classicism, with its cool rows of alternating red and white. There is
no feudal heraldry, no dragons or gryphons. It is neatly, smoothly modern.
The white stars on blue represent a "new constellation". Today, the American
flag is the only one on the moon.
Most of all, the flag instituted by the Continental Congress is a systematic
repudiation of Britain's union flag, with its explosive fist of diagonals,
suggestive of a grenade thrown by an 18th-century fusilier. The new American
flag was pacific in feeling, democratic and egalitarian in its lack of a
centre - in contrast to the union flag radiating from a monarchical centre -
and in its equal and independent elements. Perhaps more American art than
anyone cares to admit comes from this 18th-century design: the repeated
units of Don Judd or Carl Andre are not so different from those even bars.
Anyway, Old Glory was a potent enough image for Johns to dream about
painting it. His flag is a provocative masterpiece of unresolvable
questions. And yet the defining characteristic of this painting is not
coolness or cleverness. It is passion. There is so much emotion held inside
the transparent surface of Johns's flag that it cannot ever be ignored. Far
from defining art as philosophy, Flag equates art with emotion. In making
it, Johns made the flag, his nation's flag, his own.
It is not that Johns had any special grudge or patriotic obsession. He has
never been an overtly political artist. But the briefest facts about his
life up to the time he made Flag hint at the feelings this work might
contain. He was born in 1930 in Augusta, Georgia, one of the states that
seceded from the Union and its flag in 1861, precipitating the American
civil war. Johns's parents divorced when he was two or three, his mother
remarrying a man called Robert E Lee, like the Confederate general. He
started drawing when he was three and "never stopped". In 1951, he was
drafted, serving as a private from 1951 to 1953 in Japan during the Korean
war. Johns had been in the army, at a time of war. He had that relationship
with the flag.
His Flag is full of stories. Under its soft, waxy, rough-smooth surface are
headlines and stories clipped out of newspapers, barely visible in
reproduction. In the gallery, the stories are dimly read through ghostly
suspensions of white between the red bars. Their spectral presence suggests
that under the surface of the flag's simple iconic presence are complicated
lives, happenings and secrets. The simple banner conceals untold
possibilities. For us, looking at this Flag may be a reminder of what ought
to be obvious: that nations, like individuals, cannot be summed up easily.
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