Month: March 2015


Jasper Johns’ Flag, was an innovative painting in 1945, around the time of McCarthyism during the Cold War.

Jasper Johns is probably one of my favorite artists. His painting, Map, is the background I chose for this American paintings blog: here it is if you didn’t notice 🙂


Around the mid 50s, America was changing after the cold war, and so was art. Officially, we were in a modern artistic era with many pioneer painters such as Pollock and Warhol. Jasper Johns was one of those pioneers, but on a different level: he switched from Pollock’s Abstract Expressionism of no-objective things to be a recognizable object instead (1). Johns focused on “things the mind already knows” because then we could leave the process and minor differences up for interpretations(1). It is almost when you see something so often that it becomes irrelevant. However, at the time of the Cold War, the American flag was very potent.

Johns was born in 1930 in Augusta, Georgia and grew up in rural South Carolina. Having served in the Korean army, Johns returned to New York in 1953, and started his patriotic paintings (2). “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” (3)

Flag painted in 1944, was Johns first major painting. Johns painted a common object using newspaper (even more common of an object), wax, oil paint, and all of this on fabric that is mounted on plywood. The idea of painting common objects like a flag, map, signs, letters and numbers led Johns to create a foundation where the process and a closer examination is more appreciated (3).


From a distance, it is a flag, but closer in, you see the dates 1953 and 1952 and the words “communism” and “McCarthy” (5)

“I think a painting should include more experience than simply intended statement” (1)

This quote exemplifies Johns ability to break down the abstract process of painting and form it into a Pop Art and Conceptual art movement. What I mean is that Johns set the foundation for postmodern art by embracing common culture and objects with high levels of interpretation.

The symbol of the flag has many connotations and meanings from person to person. But to Johns, I think he was affected by being in the war and with the “McCarthy witch hunts” and wanted to paint a patriotic piece (1). Some viewers could read national pride or freedom in the image, while others may see imperialism or oppression (1).

A flag is such a black and white subject to paint, its very easy and controlled. However people viewed McCarthyism as black and white as well: communists are all bad, and capitalism is good. But weren’t there are underlying ideas behind it? Not all ‘associated communists’ were bad, but they were turned in my their brothers and sisters (4). The boldness but hidden newspaper in Johns’ Flag can be parallel to The Second Red Scare in which Americans were turning against each other (2).

I see patriotism in this painting, but maybe a little too much when it comes to the drastic measures Americans took to find Soviet spies.



1. The Art Story Foundation. 2014. Jasper Johns Synopsis.

2. Rosenthal, Nan. “Jasper Johns (born 1930)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)

3. “Jasper Johns: Flag” Museum of Modern Art. Collection. 2011.

4. Krome-Lukens, Anna. In class notes. 2015

5. Johns, Jasper. Flag. 1954. Mixed Media. 107.3 x 153.8 cm. MoMA


Indifference, 1944, is a reactionary and transitional painting by Thomas Hart Benton.

Benton was born in 1889 in Neosho, Missouri into a family of prominent politicians whose ideals focused on republicanism and populism (1). He grew up moving around the Midwest, where he saw many public murals that sparked his interest in art. Benton is mainly known for his detailed Regionalism murals during the Great Depression. However, Indifference, is one of his transition pieces from Regionalism to the soon-to-be-created abstract movement. Claiming to be an “enemy of modernism,” Benton simultaneously became one of the first American artists to combine modern artistic principles into his structured artistic style (1).

For quick review, Regionalism is an artistic movement where painters focused on the working class and rural scenes, usually in response to the Great Depression.

During his mid 50s, Benton was on tour talking about American Regionalism. However, on December 7, 1941, he was interrupted during a speech to hear the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Benton was immediately struck by the awful events of D-day and left in the middle of his speech with new painting ideas to be excavated (2).

After planning his responsive pieces, it only too Benton 6 weeks to create 8 paintings: together known as the Year of Peril (2).

Indifference, created in 1944, is currently at the State Historical Society of Missouri in Columbia, MO (5). While this piece became very popular during the war effort, many magazines thought it to be too gruesome to show. It was also criticized by those who studied Salvador Dali’s surrealistic works (3). Many of these critics compare Indifference to Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. Here is a view of them together:

the_persistence_of_memory_1931_salvador_dali   120711_benton_pearlharbor_004_t_w600_h600

Both paintings have a fantasy environment that is contrasted by its grim content. The use of ghastly reds and sour greens were not usually on Benton’s palate, proving that Dali influenced him. Also the vertical movement on the left side is mimicked in both paintings with a horizontal line to break up the composition. The beheaded and mangled figures in Indifference are strewn about the painting like the clocks in Dali’s work (3).

Benton used this Year of Peril series as a warning to what could happen to the United States if we did not all get behind the war effort. His vast scenery can be thought to be expanding all the way to the Mid West as a precursor to what could be. Benton wanted to display the “crude reality of violence and blood” from the war, as he stated in his essay on the Year of Peril (3, p292). He wanted it to be gruesome; to be a “warning about what the fascists might do to mainland America and to the Midwest in particular if they were to invade” (6, p118) This was his form of propaganda for the war, and soon some magazines even used his paintings for propaganda for the war effort. The Japanese were the animalistic enemy and demonized by OWI war posters (4). Japanese Americans were moved to camps because Americans feared they could hurt us from our homeland.

While The US was showing hatred towards the Japanese during WWII, American society started to reject regionalism. Many Regionalist painters wished they had never started painting before. However, Benton stated that he started to focus on nature and growth. People became an accessory and “I was thus myself moving away from regionalism” (3, p281). For Benton, it was more of a natural flow into a slightly more modern artistic style, but people wanted more. They wanted Jackson Pollock, who was coincidentally taught by Benton (3).



1. The Art Story Foundation. Thomas Hart Benton Synopsis. 2014.

2. Brinkley, Douglas. Painting to Sound the Alarm in the Wake of Pearl Harbor. 2003. The NewYork Times.

3. Doss, Erica. Benton, Pollock, and the Politics of Modernism: From Regionalism to Abstract Expressionism. book. 1991.


4. Krome-Lukens, Anna. In class notes. 2015.

5. Thomas Hart Benton. Indifference, Year of Peril Series. 1944. Oil 21×31. State Historical Soceity of Missouri. Columbia, Mo.

6. Whiting, Cécile. Antifascism in American Art. book. 1989.