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 underlying ideas behind it? Not all ‘associated communists’ were bad, but they were turned in by 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).
To be more in depth, McCarthyism was a very patriotic ideal: communists were bad, Americans and democracy were good. The American flag is a very cliche and accurate depiction of America and democracy. However, McCarthyism and Jasper Johns’ Flag have underlying tones to them. McCarthyism included the fact that families were broken up, or moved to camps because of their beliefs (4). That does not sound very free to me. Similarly, if one looks closer at Johns’ Flag newspapers, wax brushstrokes, and objects not before allowed to be in popular art are shown. This shows that Johns’ Flag is not actuality a patriotic flag, but one with many layers and different opinions. Or maybe this Flag is overly patriotic, comparing each layer to a drastic measure Americans took to find Soviet spies.
America was in a difficult state of mind, where different was not the answer. There was not much free will acted upon. What I mean is that having a different opinion was life-threatening. Luckily Johns’ differing opinion about how one should create art was not life-threatening. Jasper Johns affected the America art world by pioneering this method in which something so common can actually be very complicated.
1. The Art Story Foundation. 2014. Jasper Johns Synopsis. http://www.theartstory.org/artist-johns-jasper.htm
2. Rosenthal, Nan. “Jasper Johns (born 1930)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/john/hd_john.htm (October 2004)
3. “Jasper Johns: Flag” Museum of Modern Art. Collection. 2011. http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=78805
4. Krome-Lukens, Anna. In class notes. 2015
5. Johns, Jasper. Flag. 1954. Mixed Media. 107.3 x 153.8 cm. MoMA