Unpacking the Flag – Jasper John’s Two Flags (Black)

Johns’ explained his preoccupation with symbols such as the American flag as a fascination with the “depersonalized” and “factual” elements of everyday life. “Using the design of the American flag took care of a great deal for me because I didn’t have to design it…that gave me room to work on other levels,” he said.[1] Johns turns the flat meaning of emblems such as the flag on their heads in order to make the viewer question all associations one has when looking at the image. As mentioned previously, Johns meant to make his print the flag and not just an image of one. However, there are layers of ambiguity surrounding this statement as well. We recognize the print as representing the American flag because of the arrangement of stars and stripes, and yet the closer one looks at the print, the less flag-like it appears to be. The image moves further and further away from representing a flag as more ink and drawings are used to create it. Thus he is both creating and effacing the flag, obstructing our access to it.[2] This play with the relationship between figure and ground is instrumental to Johns’ work. The ground is always incorporating the figure, which itself is both partly immersed and surrounded by the ground.[3] The process of printmaking lends itself particularly well to this tension. The multiple layers laid down by consecutive printing elements inherently pose the question of what is figure and what is ground. In this way, Johns uses printmaking as a metaphor for the ambiguity of experience he conveys in his work.[4]

The layering inherent in printmaking is analogous to our methods of observing and learning, which are built upon various levels of experience and association. Johns seeks to unpack these levels through the use of such a symbol as the flag by removing it from its usual context. The flag is not flying above us, but is directly in front of us in our line of sight. It is now brought into the realm of ordinary two-dimensional objects, no different from a page of a book or a placemat. Yet it is also not an ordinary object, but instead a work of art put on display. We are now forced to look at a flag with a closer eye than we ever would as a result of this display. And yet by making his print the flag itself, Johns makes us question what it means to look at a flag. Is it possible for us to look at both a painting and a flag at the same time? For the fact that the flag is also a work of art draws us to analyze the flag in such a method as I have executed above, examining the details of its shape and color and lines. Our usual associations brought on by looking at a flag are now mixed with our associations of art. By looking at the flag, we are now drawn to question whether we are demonstrating respect for the symbol of the flag or for the work of art. By bringing these questions to mind, Johns makes the assertion that there is no singular way to look at either a flag or a work of art. Clement Greenberg once asked if what we call art can just be said as “the act of seeing,” and Johns seems to take this position in his work.[5] For him, the foundational element of art is the transformation of this act of seeing brought on by the fact that we are observing elements of daily life in a new setting.

[1] Carpenter, Joan. “The Infra-Iconography of Jasper Johns.”

[2] Fisher, Phillip. “Strategies for Making and Effacing Art.”

[3] Yau, John. “Jasper Johns’ Preoccupation (Part 2).” The American Poetry Review, 35.5 (2006): 13-17. JSTOR. Web. Feb 2014.

[4] Field, Richard S. Jasper Johns Prints 1970 – 1977.

[5] ibid.

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