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 had 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.