JASPER JOHNS’ FLAG

“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?”

Jasper Johns was born May 15,1930 in Augusta, Georgia. He is known as one of America’s great contemporary artists and works primarily in painting and printmaking. He studied briefly at the Parsons School of Design in New York City, but left for Japan in 1952 for the Korean War. Johns is best known for his painting, Flag, which he painted after he had a dream about the American flag.

The color, for example, is applied not to canvas but to strips of newspaper—a material almost too ordinary to notice. Upon closer inspection, though, those scraps of newsprint are as hard to ignore as they are to read. Also, instead of working with oil paint, Johns chose encaustic, a mixture of pigment and molten wax that has left a surface of lumps and smears; so that even though one recognizes the image in a second, close up it becomes textured and elaborate. It is at once impersonal, or public, and personal; abstract and representational; easily grasped and demanding of close attention.

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