24 Works of Modern Art That Shook the World

Jasper Johns - White Flag

“An absence of clarity”

- Jasper Johns, when asked for his greatest regret

Fresh Brushstrokes

Halfway through the 20th century, Jasper Johns had the daring vision to create something new. Thus, he steered away from the gestural strokes and splatters of abstract expressionism and rooted himself firmly in reality. After literally destroying the past by discarding all of his artworks made before 1954, Johns boldly entered a fresh creative phase. He established simple instructions for himself: “Take an object. Do something with it. Do something else with it." [1] Johns’s brilliance is his upheaval of past artistic traditions and styles through his concentration on basic imagery, commonplace symbols, and everyday objects. One such mundane image that Johns chose to focus on was the iconic American flag. In his characteristic blunt tone, Johns explains his inspiration behind his most famous artwork: “I dreamt one night that I painted the flag of America. The next day, I did it.” [2] Despite the familiar subject matter and Johns’s modest tone, what began as a simple mission to paint the American flag altered the course of art history and commenced a new era of artistic exploration.

Enigmatic Icon

White Flag by Jasper Johns is the ghostly shadow of an American flag. It was [Jasper] Johns’s first monochrome rendition of the flag, though traces of color linger in the wax. The artwork is divided into three separately created panels. First, Johns applied unbleached beeswax to the canvases. Next, he constructed the stars and stripes with layers of cut and torn newsprint, paper, and fabric by dipping the collage materials in molten beeswax and bonding them to the canvas surface. Each star was separately cut out and collaged to the piece. Lastly, Johns joined the panels and coated the three with more beeswax and scattered dashes of white oil paint. Since White Flag is an encaustic work, the surface is highly textured with distinct brushstrokes and rough, uneven layers. Hints of textile scraps and paper peek through the wax, adding to its rough finish.

Gone are the American flag’s cobalt, scarlet, and pure white hues; now, all that is left are its sickly, grotesque, muted remains. In some respects, the flag is striking when stripped of its normal color. In the absence of its traditional pigments, it has taken on nearly opalescent, shifting tonalities. Its color is not quite clear; undertones range from inky blue to pasty yellow to soft green where the blue and yellow have merged into one another. On the other hand, the faint off-white shades suggest that the flag has been drained of all life and vibrancy, reduced to a subdued version of its former self. Ghostly and elusive, the flag is veiled below murky wax layers. Glimpses of headlines and pictures from newspaper clippings can nearly be seen. White Flag becomes drastically more vibrant when viewed on a more intimate scale; suddenly, tawny yellow hues and blue-jade tones harmonize and contrast with one another. The finished work is reminiscent of a relief sculpture, with three-dimensional ridges and valleys that play with the light and create a dynamic composition.

Artistic Circumstances

After an artistic period full of loose, frenzied gestures and inaccessible, conjectural meanings, Johns’s celebration of the commonplace was striking. Johns did not seek to convey his raw, innermost emotions; rather, he shied away from personally revealing work. Instead, Johns focused on shared experiences between Americans and all human citizens. In Johns’s own words: “Works of art… can be treated like any object, since they are just given. And sometimes the image is so striking you simply want to use [it] again in some other context." [3] Johns and his good friend Robert Rauschenberg were two of the first artists to break away from the mid-century trend of abstractionism and turn their focus to familiar objects and more concrete content. This attentiveness towards the ordinary inspired the next generation of pop artists who felt limited by abstract expressionism and readily welcomed new avenues of creativity.

Johns himself was influenced by Duchamp’s readymades and his background designing posters for military films. Growing up in South Carolina with little exposure to great art and with little knowledge of the art world, Johns found beauty in the objects around him. So, works by Picasso and other expressionists felt overwhelming and out of reach. With Rauschenberg’s help, Johns crafted his own art style, one that made sense to him and reflected the world around him. As Johns and Rauschenberg gained momentum and traction in the art world, they began to form their own community of artists, forming friendships with choreographer Merce Cunningham, composer John Cage, and artist Jim Dine. Johns and Rauschenberg were labeled New-Dadaists because of their efforts to make daily life the focus of art through destruction of icons and appropriation of preexisting objects.

Massively important movements such as Pop Art, Minimal Art, Conceptual Art, Fluxus, and others were born as a direct result of Jasper’s creative interpretation of normalcy. Johns’s artwork altered the artistic discussion and introduced the art world to something new, which distinguished him as one of the world’s great creative thinkers. He did not abide by the rules or attempt to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors. Instead, Johns occupied his own unique artistic space and visual universe. [4]

The Artist

Understanding Jasper Johns certainly aids in the comprehension of his work. He is fundamentally reclusive, private, and invested in making art available to everyone, especially young people. He does not discuss the meaning of his work, even with friends, preferring to talk about gardening and cooking. Nearly everything about his intimate life and personal thought process is ambiguous, including his sexuality. Though Johns lives in solitude, he is not miserly or misanthropic, proven by the fact that he wants his home to serve as an artist’s retreat after his passing. Additionally, Johns co-founded the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in Manhattan, which gives grants to artists.

Today, Jasper Johns is renowned as one of America’s greatest living artists. Johns’s art defined the transitional period between abstract expressionism and pop art; thus, he is credited with promoting this evolution. Throughout his lifetime, critics have praised his inventiveness, his elusively philosophical approach to art, and his ability to spark controversy while remaining mysterious and taciturn. [5]

Jasper Johns’s first solo exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery was an instant success that launched his career and brought him recognition from the art world. In the midst of 1950s McCarthyism, his flags were a confusing blend of rebellion and patriotism. White Flag elicited vastly different responses from each reviewer and critic: some perceived the work as anti-American, while others saw it as a celebration of America. Though the flag is normally a politically charged image, Johns has consistently refused to explain the piece’s meaning. Eventually, audiences were forced to accept Johns’s style: “enigmatic, yet direct — much like the artist." [6] The artist’s refusal to explain himself allows his flags to take on whatever meaning the viewer would like, opening the discussion to all perspectives and opinions. In stripping the American flag of its inherent meaning, Johns puts the viewer in charge of assigning meaning to the artwork. Since White Flag has no discernible emotion or obvious meaning, reviewers have labeled Johns as transcendentalist. [7]

Contrasting Views

White Flag’s intentionally elusive meaning allows a vast range of interpretations that encompass a plethora of cultural, social, ethical, and political issues. There is something quite poignant and sorrowful in White Flag that only becomes apparent once one stands quite close to the dripping white wax and the sickly-looking stars. The effect of the encaustic is movement frozen in time, as the dripping wax is forever preserved in its motionless state. There is a sense of futile longing— to see beneath the white shroud, to release the flag from its still, ghostly state, to peel back the layers and uncover its true meaning. At first, one sees the flag and cannot help but think of it in context. One may picture battles against the British for independence, America’s history of conquest, and representations of the flag in military artwork. Or, one may think of quintessential American imagery, such as the baseball game and the suburban home with the flag flying proudly out front. The Korean War’s effect on Johns as an artist and a human being may also be visible in the painting’s notches and ripples. Next, one may contemplate Johns’s color choice and the symbolism of whiteness in an American context. Analysis of Johns’s color choice engenders a discussion about race and normalcy in American culture: from the whitewashing of American history to the desperation for a cookie-cutter lifestyle that was prevalent in the 1950s. Use of newspaper hints at the role of media in American culture and the impact of words in daily life. In the end, one can only create true individualized meaning by removing the flag’s inherent ‘flagness’ and erasing its nationalism, history, and politics completely.

White Flag is a collection of shapes and materials and colors that engage the mind and promote creative thinking. It is a proud representation of the glorious American flag and it is a sorrowful depiction of the tragic American flag. It is white and colorless, yet it is composed of pigments, dyes, and light. The beauty of Jasper Johns’s work is that viewers look at universally recognized images, apply their own beliefs and experience, and perceive something completely different from any other viewer. Each individual brings him or herself to the work, converting a common icon into something distinctly personal.

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