Jasper Johns’ Two Flags

In the 1950’s it took great creativity for an artist to be willing to break free from the dominant abstract expressionism movement of the time and center his work around common objects such as the American flag. Critics agree that Jasper Johns’ early work of flags, targets, numbers, and other everyday subjects were watershed, opening the way to pop art, minimalism, conceptual art; many of the major artistic developments of the 20th century.[1] Jasper Johns’ Two Flags is representative of a point in Jonhs career deeply rooted in the artist’s early work while simultaneously beginning to strive towards new heights.

Up to this point, Johns’ work had been viewed as “coolly antithetical to the expressionistic gestural abstraction of the previous generation.” Johns’ goal in producing flags, and other such iconography, self described as deriving imagery from, “things the mind already knows,” utterly familiar icons. It was in this way that Johns’ early work with flags, strove to show the viewer a flag represented as such, not as it would later become, a deconstruction of the flag. [2]At this earlier time in Johns’ career the use of flags seems to be relating the flatness of a flag to the relative lack of depth present in many modernist paintings. Johns’ use of flags must also be put in historical context, for over the decades during which flags remained relevant to Johns they had the ability to connote American art, senator Joseph McCarthy, the Korean and Vietnam war, and much more. [3]

Through the use of already designed object’s, Johns found a technique simultaneously able to allow Johns to focus on the part of painting that most interested him, and explore the publics distant familiarity with such objects. Additionally, in the flag Johns found a framework rigorous enough to achieve his objective of covering a surface with color in such a way as to allow an infinite number of variations. Johns has said that he took the format of the flag because it meant he didn’t have to invent a compositional structure for his pictures. Working on objects that didn’t require John’s to design them, these “things the mind already knows”, allowed him to “work on other levels,” concentrating on other parts of the painting.  In Two Flags it is apparent that John’s has shifted his focus onto the effect loss of color will have as well as how his compositional choices affect the response to a previously composed object. [4]

Upon first impression the flags of Two Flags are immediately different from those in Johns’ early work. Where the image of the flag began as the defining and recognizable feature of John’s paintings, upon approach of Two Flags the prints subject is not immediately noticeable, for the first thing that catches your eye is the vertically positioned rectangle, a shape which acts in direct opposition to the expected dimensions of the flag. At the same time the print is rooted deeply in previous works of Johns, there being two previous Two Flags before the one in 1970, the first occurring in 1959.[5] The concept of one flag placed atop another remains the same, while the earlier one used the traditional red white and blue of the flag. This difference points out explicitly the importance of the latter’s choice to be in Black ink solely, creating one overall texture as opposed to a visible divide between the two flags. Additionally because of the monotone color pallet, the work is approached with no preconditioned expectations for the flag imagery except that which had been established by Johns as an artist. In this way Johns seems to be defamiliarizing the audience to his iconic view of the flag, no longer just presenting the “things the mind already knows,” but taking those things and letting the viewer unlearn them. [6]

The composition of Two Flag’s is further, treated in an interesting way, for even though the piece could be simplified down to a black rectangle on a larger white rectangle. The white space around to two flag’s is able to function as more than merely a matte to frame the image. The space is instead activated through the artist’s use of non-exact lines to border the image, and the few incidental drips around the frame. The image is further complicated through the varying range of line qualities, from the think splotches of black which make up the flags’ stripes the white scratches which texture the overall composition. These scratches are both compositionally and thematically one of the more interesting aspects of the print, for not only do they create a sense of disorder to combat the preconception of organization and order that goes along with the flag imagery, but in the way they are made they seem to complement the thematic goals of the piece. This result is present because in order for these white lines to exist, the removal of paint from the black flags is necessary. This idea of composition through degradation of the flag imagery is essential to the overall piece, which at every turn seems to suggest the idea of a flag flipped on it’s head. An idea even literally present in the dimensions of the piece which if turned on it’s side might resemble the dimensions of a flag.

In all these ways the use of printmaking in John’s work, functioned as means for transition. First beginning to work in lithograph in 1960[7], Johns transitioned from his previously established definition of his work, to what he described, in a 1964 interview, as

“A thing’s not being what it was, with its becoming something other than what it is, with any moment in which one identifies a thing precisely and with the slipping away of that moment, with at any moment seeing or saying and letting it go at that.” [8]

But even through his his transition as an artist, because of Johns start as a painter, his technique as a printmaker can be understood as an extension of his techniques a painter. This is visible in Two Flags for the scrapping away of ink has a very painterly quality, and is a technique, which Johns used, even before his transition to printmaking.[9]

When using the iconography of the United States flag, it is impossible to isolate one overarching theme for which it evokes. In reference to the post World War II art boom, it can be seen as form of patriotism, in reference to the McCarthyism of the 1950’s, or the Vietnam War of the 60’s and 70’s it can be instead viewed as an American critique, or an ironic show of support. But more unifying than the time that the work was done is the possibility that the flags are not only a national emblem but a personal one as well. When asked the reason why he did flags, Johns answered that he “intuitively [liked] to paint flags,” and it is quite possible that this intuition came from something deep rooted in his family’s history.[10] Johns like his father was named after a noted heroic rescuer of flags in the revolutionary war, Sergeant William Jasper of the second South Carolina infantry. When he said that he felt there was no point doing work that was not personal, he might as have been implying that the flags and targets held such a place of significance. [11]In this way it is impossible to separate the artist from the art, for not only does the work have a place in the context of American history, but it holds a place in the Johns family history as well.

While the time Johns’ flags were made and the history of the artist who made them are key to understanding the meaning housed within each work, it is also important to consider the viewer, reacting to the American flag through whatever lens their current situation allows them. It is in this way that any person’s interpretation of Johns’ Two Flags can change over time, in one moment idolizing American power, in the next criticizing it. While acknowledging this certainly complicates the interpretation of Johns work, it also further justifies the choice to use flags as a subject for so much of his career. For inherent in the depiction of an object, forever in our cultural vocabulary, is both the hand of the artist, as well as the ever changing significance of the icon it depicts; no doubt a powerful legacy for an artist to leave.







[1] Quick, Jennifer, and Jennifer L. Roberts. Jasper Johns/in Press: The Crosshatch Works and the Logic of Print. 3-15. Print.

[2] Johns, Jasper, and Leo Castelli. Jasper Johns. New York: Universe/Vendome, 1997. 10-20. Print.

[3] Cozzolino, Robert. “Jasper Johns: Flag.” PAFA. N.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2014. http://www.pafa.org/museum/Exhibitions/Past-Exhibitions/Jasper-Johns-Flag/798/

[4] Sylvester, David. Jasper Johns Flags, 1955-1994. London: Anthony D’Offay Gallery, 1996. 1-10, 20-25. Print.

[5] Craft, Catherine, and Jasper Johns. Jasper Johns. New York: Parkstone, 2009. 3-9.Print.

[6] Rosenthal, Nan. “Jasper Johns (born 1930).” Jasper Johns (born 1930). Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004. Web. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/john/hd_john.htm

[7] Ibid. Quick, Jennifer, and Jennifer L. Roberts

[8] Ibid. Rosenthal, Nan.

[9] Meis, Morgan. “Taking Aim; Jasper Johns: An Allegory Of Painting, 1955-1965.” Virginia Quarterly Review 83.2 (2007): 108-119. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web..

[10] Ibid. Craft, Catherine, and Jasper Johns.

[11] Ibid. Sylvester, David.


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