Jasper Johns Paints the American Flag Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Jasper Johns’s portrayal of a national symbol, the American flag, as a work of art sparked intense controversy and even outrage and helped lead to a revival of figurative painting.

Summary of Event

When Jasper Johns had a dream about painting a large American flag, one night in 1954, he instinctively imagined a new means of expression for his work. Struck by this vivid image, Johns subsequently executed his first flag painting some days later, though it would be several years before the work would be formally exhibited. The work came to be called, simply, Flag (1954-1955). In choosing the iconic image of the American flag, the artist selected an instantly recognizable object that was imbued with many layers of meaning. The flag was a preconditioned sign with complex associations, familiar, symbolic, and sacrosanct; it was an object that viewers already knew. As a symbol of the United States, the flag was intricately tied to the values and intentions of the nation. In choosing this image, Johns selected an emotionally charged subject to depict and to deconstruct. Painting Flag (Johns) [kw]Jasper Johns Paints the American Flag (1954-1955) [kw]Johns Paints the American Flag, Jasper (1954-1955) [kw]American Flag, Jasper Johns Paints the (1954-1955) [kw]Flag, Jasper Johns Paints the American (1954-1955) Painting Flag (Johns) [g]North America;1954-1955: Jasper Johns Paints the American Flag[04320] [g]United States;1954-1955: Jasper Johns Paints the American Flag[04320] [c]Arts;1954-1955: Jasper Johns Paints the American Flag[04320] Johns, Jasper Rauschenberg, Robert Johnson, Philip

In 1954, less than a decade after the end of World War II, the United States had become a superpower embroiled in international Cold War politics. The country was staunchly conservative and was largely retrenching and rebuilding for the future. Americans saw their international role as global defenders of freedom; on the home front, they were in hot pursuit of the American Dream. U.S. citizens were both optimistic about the future and fiercely nationalistic. Although the worst paranoia of the Joseph McCarthy McCarthyism[Maccarthyism] era had passed, a climate of fear and suspicion still prevailed, and the specter of international communism was regarded as a major threat to the American way of life. The image of the flag thus took on added resonance, as the primary symbol of freedom around the world and as a beloved emblem of national pride at home. This reverence for the flag was used by Johns as a cultural subtext that he subverted through the cool, abstract, and analytical style of his painting.

Johns undertook paintings of flags, targets, and numbers—instantly recognizable things that would be accepted into a viewer’s consciousness without scrutiny—and explored the universal possibilities inherent in these visual signs. In these works, Johns broke with standardized perception and dislocated the subjects of his paintings, challenging viewers to see them in a new way.

Born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1930, Johns moved to New York City after being discharged from the U.S. Army. One of the first people he met in New York was Robert Rauschenberg, who was pursuing his own artistic experiments, principally the creation of highly individual collages. Johns and Rauschenberg soon became fast friends, sharing ideas and even living in the same building. Both artists began experimenting with the use of “found” objects in their work, thus breaking with abstract expressionism’s Abstract expressionism emphasis on the sublime elements of abstraction by introducing figural elements into contemporary avant-garde art. By combining the techniques of abstract expressionism with images of common, everyday objects, the two young artists added another dimension to the abstract—a new layering of meaning, rooted in the experience of contemporary life, that called for a cultural engagement with their works.

Along with Rauschenberg, Johns worked as a window display artist for such New York department stores as Bonwit Teller Bonwit Teller department store and Tiffany’s, sometimes using his paintings as backgrounds for the display of merchandise. Two of his early flag paintings, Flag on Orange Field Flag on Orange Field (Johns) and White Flag, White Flag (Johns) were shown in late 1957 in a Bonwit Teller window; the display of the works in such a context emphasized the “objectness” of the paintings and challenged ingrained notions of cultural symbolism. In these early, proto-pop art Pop art paintings, Johns questioned the basic notion of assigning distinct roles to an object and to the painting of the object. Through their use as props or backdrops for commercial consumerism, the paintings also blurred the distinction between “high” and “low” art, thus subtly questioning the role of fine art and its authenticity. Moreover, in using recurring images of flags, targets, numbers, and letters, Johns elevated the impression of the object as an entity in and of itself, without narrative context or structure, as a valid subject for painting.

Johns’s flags were flat, rigid, and frontally depicted. They were not objects, but paintings of objects. The flag was thus neutralized and abstracted, a paradox. By removing the potent patriotic meaning from the depiction, Johns subverted and dislocated the flag; he destroyed its uniqueness and made it merely another sign. In choosing the iconic image of the flag, Johns selected an object that was often seen but that was not really looked at or understood. By casting that image in abstract terms and taking it into another realm of perception and understanding, the artist jarred his viewers into responding. The mythic quality of the flag was contested, and viewers were forced to rethink the emotional responses it engendered. Johns simplified the complex contextual underpinnings inherent in the depiction of the flag and presented it anew and devoid of emotion.

In his representations of the flag, Johns took a neutral position. He painted it in a distanced manner, as an observer. He presented the elements of discourse without offering commentary of his own. This position of neutrality would become central to pop art; viewers were allowed to make associations with objects that were laden with meaning, but they were prevented from drawing firm conclusions about the artists’ attitudes toward their subjects.

This sense of coolness, of removal from the charged imagery of his works, was achieved through the medium with which Johns rendered his paintings. Johns at first attempted to execute his works in enamel paint, but he found enamel to be too slow-drying for his purposes. He began to experiment with the encaustic technique, a painting method in which a mixture of pigment and hot wax was applied to a canvas, producing a thick, translucent surface. The artist’s hand was in evidence in the soft layers of the final product; the waxy glaze had a shimmering glow to it, giving the color an added depth.

Johns’s use of the encaustic process allowed him to produce layers of color and imagery and thus to make the painting process a key element in his work. Many of the flag paintings began with a layer of newspaper collage that bled through the translucent layers of wax pigment, giving the works more complex inner visual structures and adding a layer of contextual meaning, as words bled through to the surface to conjure new associations. By using the underlying layer of collage, Johns extended the appropriation of the image itself—in a sense, a painted collage—and further removed the image from its original intention as an iconic object.

The status of the flag paintings as objects in their own right was further emphasized by their static, frontal presentation. The flags in the paintings did not seem to furl in an imagined breeze; instead, they appeared unbending, hard, and immobile. In Johns’s refashioning of the object, the flags stood apart from themselves, integrally connected to the spatial ground while unconnected in context. Johns thus implicitly asked questions about the flag and its meaning, but he gave no answers. Unlike Marcel Duchamp and other Dada artists who decisively influenced Johns’s work, Johns and the pop artists who followed him were not directly critical of their society or culture. Instead, they opened the discussion without commentary and offered no solutions. Johns’s work was thus often described as ambiguous and mysterious. There was no radical political agenda evident in his work, only a sense of inquiry. He was not contemptuous of his society, merely ambivalent.


The first formal showing of Johns’s flag and target paintings took place at an exhibition entitled Artists of the New York School: Second Generation, Artists of the New York School (exhibition) New York School (painting) held at the Jewish Museum in New York from March 10 to April 28, 1957. Art dealer Leo Castelli Castelli, Leo saw the show, and several months later, while visiting Rauschenberg’s studio, he asked if he could meet Johns. Castelli was so impressed with Johns’s work that he offered the young artist a one-man show at his gallery. On January 20, 1958, the first exhibition of Johns’s work opened at the Castelli Gallery, where the flag and target paintings were viewed by a stunned public.

The exhibition of Johns’s work broke the abstract expressionists’ stranglehold on the New York avant-garde art scene. In a nearly unprecedented publicity coup, ARTnews magazine carried a reproduction of Johns’s Target with Four Faces Target with Four Faces (Johns) on its January, 1958, cover, giving the show enormous publicity. The show itself, though, served as the real launching pad for Johns’s career. Some viewers were outraged by the imagery of the flags and targets, but many were simply impressed.

Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Barr, Alfred H., Jr. , an official of New York’s Museum of Modern Art Museum of Modern Art Museums , visited the exhibition and stayed for three hours. Barr and the museum’s curator, Dorothy Miller Miller, Dorothy , arranged to buy four of Johns’s paintings, including Flag, Johns’s original vision, for the museum’s permanent collection. The purchase of Flag, however, proved politically problematic; Barr resolved the dilemma by persuading the renowned architect Philip Johnson to purchase the work and later donate it to the museum. Barr thus protected himself and the Museum of Modern Art from potential criticism for purchasing what some regarded as an unpatriotic depiction of a national icon.

Johns refuted the uniqueness of the flag by making it merely another sign in a system of signs; he thus undercut the emotional connotations of the flag image and rendered it anonymous and tenuous. He presented the flag without reverential connections and with an emphasis on its “thingness.” Viewers of Johns’s flag paintings were thus put off balance by the depiction of the familiar object, on one hand, and by the implied ambivalence toward it, on the other. The critic Max Kozloff Kozloff, Max has noted that Johns reduced his flags and targets to “merely so many abstract forms upon which social usage had conferred meaning, but which now, displaced into their new context, cease to function socially.” In Johns’s paintings, the flag lost its power to command, and it retained only vestigial trappings of past meaning.

Despite the controversy Flag generated, Johns would rework the concept many times over the years. In 1958’s Three Flags, Three Flags (Johns) for example, Johns used a reverse perspective to depict a small flag receding into a second, larger flag, with a third, still larger flag behind both. The resulting subversion of traditional perspective created a visual pun that denied not only the spatial illusion of the three-dimensional object—the flag—in a pictorial space but also the status of the object as a bona fide painted illusion. By bringing the smallest flag to the foreground, with the larger flags overlapping it from behind, Johns also jarred his viewers’ perceptions; the larger flags seemed to push forward. The painting seemed to imply a succession of such flags stretching into infinity, thus extending the visual aspects of the painting into a mental construct of limitless images of the object. This treatment was further augmented by the layering of the encaustic technique, which added to the visual emphasis on the work’s surface and created a depth of field.

The abstract expressionists’ quest for the heroic and the sublime in art was suddenly superseded by the efforts of a new wave of artists led by Rauschenberg and Johns. Abstract expressionism was the artistic expression of a personal search for the inner self; philosophically rooted in existentialism, it relied on individual experience and insisted on its practitioners’ ultimate control of and responsibility for their actions. Abstract expressionism called for its adherents to leap “into the void,” wrote critic Irving Sandler, “retrieving it and making the act transcendent.” Through their angst, these artists sought to achieve a personal art that transcended twentieth century alienation; through the artistic application of their own determination and spirit, they hoped to emerge as heroes.

Between Johns’s first exhibition in 1958 and the full-fledged emergence of pop art in the early 1960’s, a new aesthetic was born. Moving away from the deeply felt emotionalism of the abstract expressionists, Johns and the pop artists created works that were cool, removed, and devoid of emotion. They produced dispassionate paintings of common objects and of images gleaned from advertising and popular culture. The pop artists coolly and objectively evaluated their society by portraying images common to everyday experience. Their work, with its emphasis on objects, was thus a radical critique of abstract expressionism and its tenets. Rejecting abstraction, Johns and his cohorts demythologized art and offered instead a straightforward look at American culture.

With his flag paintings, Johns both presented a new “reading” of the flag image and instigated a new inquiry into what constitutes a work of art. His dislocation of the cultural meaning inherent in the flag created a conflict between the object and the painting of the object; using a familiar and emotionally charged symbol, he denied a connection between art objects and the psychological framework from which they come. Moreover, by challenging abstract expressionism’s dominance of the avant-garde art scene, Johns helped inspire a return to the depiction of objects and a renewal of the artistic connection to the world of tangible things. Painting Flag (Johns)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alloway, Lawrence. Topics in American Art Since 1945. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975. A compendium of postwar American art that discusses the development of modern art, from the work of the abstract expressionists to the later “Earthwork” artists. Places Johns in his proper context as a link between abstract expressionism and pop art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Francis, Richard. Jasper Johns. New York: Abbeville Press, 1984. An excellent book on Johns’s work and his development as an artist. Francis gives a clear understanding of the period and also undertakes a personal exploration of the artist.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoffman, Katherine. Explorations: The Visual Arts Since 1945. New York: Harper-Collins, 1991. An excellent history of the period that details the development of the various postwar movements and the artists who shaped them. Hoffman’s section on Johns is highly informative; her discussion of his flag paintings is especially good.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hughes, Robert. The Shock of the New. 1980. Rev. ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991. Produced as the companion to a widely acclaimed television series narrated by Hughes. Although the book contains only a small section on Johns, it explicates his use of common objects in a new sign system. The entire text provides an excellent background on the development of modern art and Johns’s place in its evolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johns, Jasper. Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews. Edited by Kirk Varnedoe and compiled by Christel Hollevoet. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1996. A 320-page catalog of the exhibition “Jasper Johns: A Retrospective,” held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 20, 1996-January 21, 1997.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kozloff, Max. “American Painting During the Cold War.” In Pollock and After, edited by Francis Franscina. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. An excellent essay on Johns’s work. The other essays in the book give a useful account of the art and politics of the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tomkins, Calvin. Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time. New York: Penguin Books, 1981. A freewheeling account of the lives of Johns and Rauschenberg. A must for those interested in the works of either artist.

Peggy Guggenheim’s Gallery Promotes New American Art

Cage’s 4′ 33″ Premieres

Rosenberg Defines “Action Painting”

SoHo Emerges as a Center for Contemporary Art

Minimalism Emphasizes Objects as Art

Breuer Designs a Building for the Whitney Museum

Categories: History Content