“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?”
Curator, Anne Umland: Johns set out to paint commonplace, recognizable objects, the things as he once said, "that the mind already knows," which included maps, numbers, letters of the alphabet, targets, and as in this case, flags. I think even from a distance, when you look at Jasper Johns Flag, it's clear that this is not your typical everyday American flag.
In the first place, as you can see when you look closely, this is a flag that is constructed, not sewn. It's solid, right? It's thick. It's object-like. It has this surface that is smeared and painted and dripped on with colored encaustic, which is a mixture of wax and pigment. You can see through it.
And underneath the pigment are strips of collaged newspapers. And when you really begin to look at these you can see that there are dates that are recognizable they allow us to locate this painting, this flag, this timeless symbol of our nation within a very particular context, the 1950s in America, which is right in the midst of the McCarthy era and the beginning of the Cold War, when symbols such as the flag would have had a very particular and potent valence.
Using the flag, Johns said, gave him a great deal of freedom, because he didn't have to design it. It was a symbol that gave him room to work on other levels, and specifically, on the making of the painting.
When Johns made Flag, the dominant American art was Abstract Expressionism, which enthroned the bold, spontaneous use of gesture and color to evoke emotional response. Johns, though, had begun to paint common, instantly recognizable symbols—flags, targets, numbers, letters. Breaking with the idea of the canvas as a field for abstract personal expression, he painted "things the mind already knows." Using the flag, Johns said, "took care of a great deal for me because I didn't have to design it." That gave him "room to work on other levels"—to focus his attention on the making of the painting.
The color, for example, is applied not to canvas but to strips of newspaper—a material almost too ordinary to notice. Upon closer inspection, though, those scraps of newsprint are as hard to ignore as they are to read. Also, instead of working with oil paint, Johns chose encaustic, a mixture of pigment and molten wax that has left a surface of lumps and smears; so that even though one recognizes the image in a second, close up it becomes textured and elaborate. It is at once impersonal, or public, and personal; abstract and representational; easily grasped and demanding of close attention.