On Jasper Johns’ “Flag”


I wouldn’t be much of an artist if I didn’t have any antecedents to look to for inspiration… Or maybe that would make me the greatest artist in the world, with an uncanny ability to produce with no inspiration at all.

Well, it’s a moot point anyhow, since I do have a source of inspiration. I’ve always been enamored with the color theory of Monet and Seurat and the Surrealist movement as a whole. When it comes to specific pieces, the one that fascinated me more than any other (and still does) is Jasper Johns’ Flag.

1954-55 (dated on reverse 1954). Encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric mounted on plywood, three panels, 42 1/4 x 60 5/8" (107.3 x 153.8 cm).

Currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art, here is the accompanying label with the piece:

“One night I dreamed that I painted a large American flag,” Johns has said of this work, “and the next morning I got up and I went out and bought the materials to begin it.” Those materials included three canvases that he mounted on plywood, strips of newspaper, and encaustic paint—a mixture of pigment and molten wax that has formed a surface of lumps and smears. The newspaper scraps visible beneath the stripes and forty-eight stars lend this icon historical specificity. The American flag is something “the mind already knows,” Johns has said, but its execution complicates the representation and invites close inspection. A critic of the time encapsulated this painting’s ambivalence, asking, “Is this a flag or a painting?”

I never thought about it until now, but in some ways, my Foogos aren’t so unlike Johns’ Flag. No, I’m not putting myself on his level. Not even close. But in terms of the process, there is a similarity between his project and my ongoing work. Johns took a preexisting icon and re-imagined it in a way no one had thought to do before. And now I’m essentially doing the same thing, but instead of paint, wood and newspaper, I’m using food.

Flag is probably the Georgia native’s* most recognizable piece, if for no other reason than I rarely retained anything from thousands of hours of studying art history, yet this stands out. So I guess there’s something to be said for that.

TANGENT: Johns’ imprint on my mind didn’t end with Flag. In college, I used to make dinner reservations under the name “Jasper.” My girlfriend thought I was an idiot.

It’s kind of ironic, considering the image is such a simple piece of iconography that had already existed in some incarnation for around 175 years. The average person, artistically inclided or otherwise, might not even think that Flag should “count” as fine art, because of its label as a “reproduction.” But it’s so much more.

*Johns was born in Augusta, but primarily grew up moving around South Carolina before making a name for himself in New York. In other Jasper fun facts, on February 15th, he became the first studio artist to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 34 years.

Jasper Johns

If you’re ever in New York City, visit the MoMa on 53rd Street, just off 6th Avenue, to see this awesome piece of American art. Be sure to really get in there. From a distance, its just another rendition of the Stars and Stripes (with 48 stars), but get up close and you’ll notice intricate textures. Closer still, and those textures are articles from the newspapers pasted down. I wonder how self-aware Johns was when he did this. Did he know he was capturing a moment in American life? Or was it just an aesthetic choice that was a fun idea at the time, like macaroni and cheese and chili?

If you’ve got any input on Flag, or anything else art-, food-, pop- or sports-related, share it in the comments section or chirp away at any of these Foogos satellite sites:

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