The forty-eight stars and red-and-white stripes depicted here picture an American
flag from the year this work was made. Johns noted that using a recognizable image took care of a great deal for him because he didn’t have to design it. He made this work by combining panels, paint, and encaustic—a mixture of pigment and melted wax that captured the paint’s drips, smears, and brushstrokes. Beneath the flag’s familiar stripes, we can make out a collage of newspaper scraps whose dates locate this commonplace symbol within a particular moment.
Gallery label from “Collection 1940s—1970s”, 2019
“It all began…with my painting a picture of an American flag,” Johns remarked in 1959 in reference to this work. Flag was made on a cut bedsheet using oil paint and then encaustic, a method involving pigmented melted wax. Johns dipped strips of cloth and newsprint into the hot wax and then affixed them to the sheet to fill in a penciled outline of the flag. The result is a picture whose process is registered on its surface, a focus on materiality at odds with the expressionistic gestures dominant in painting at the time of Flag’s making. Johns went on to use encaustic to render familiar forms—flags, targets, numbers, letters, and a map of the United States—time and again throughout his career.
Flag constitutes both a thing (a flag) and its representation (a painting of a flag). This built-in ambiguity is the work’s innovation as well as its provocation. MoMA’s founding director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., hoped to acquire the piece along with three others from Johns’s first solo exhibition, in 1958 at New York’s Leo Castelli Gallery. However, the Museum’s Committee and Board of Trustees deemed Flag to be potentially “unpatriotic.” Barr circumvented their objections by asking architect Philip Johnson to acquire the work and donate it to the Museum at a later date.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
“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?”
Gallery label from 2011.