Jasper Johns’ Un-American Flag

As the United States of America celebrates Independence Day, the country drapes itself in the red, white and blue of the American flag. As a potent symbol of national pride and ‘Americanness’, the flag became a recurrent subject in the work of one Cold War painter as he questioned his response to political events.

Jasper Johns was part of a new wave of young American artists in the 1950s who began to explore ways of distancing themselves from the overblown rhetoric of the Cold War, paving the way for the rise of Pop Art and Minimalism the following decade.

Johns painted his first Flag in 1954, after waking from a dream in which he saw himself painting an American flag. The image operated on several levels, including as a semiotic conundrum (is it a flag or a depiction of a flag?), and to question the viewer’s ability to discriminate a series of block colours, a familiar modernist pursuit, from their political content. But in the oppressive atmosphere of early Cold War America, where McCarthyist blacklists and loyalty oaths lent the flag added political significance, Johns’ Flag also become an ironic symbol of the loss of freedom.

At the time the work was deemed to be so controversial that MoMA arranged for it to be purchased via a third party to avoid accusations of un-American subversion.

Image: Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954–55. Encaustic, oil and collage on fabric mounted on plywood, three panels, 107.3 x 153.8 cm. MoMA © 2014 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


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