Jasper Johns

Featured in Symbols and Meaning Activity
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Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954-55, encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric mounted on plywood, 42 x 61 in., Museum of Modern Art, gift of Philip Johnson in honor of Alfred H. Barr, Jr.

Jasper Johns was born in 1930 in Allendale, South Carolina. He moved to New York City after studying at the University of South Carolina. He began his career at age 24 when he created his first of many Flag paintings.  His rendering of the American flag startled an art world that was still largely preoccupied with abstraction. The work was exhibited in a 1957 group show at the Leo Castelli Gallery.  Alfred Barr of the Museum of Modern Art wanted to purchase the work but worried that it might be seen as unpatriotic by his board, so he arranged for someone else to buy it and later donate it to the museum.  Flag’s ambiguity intrigued many and led art critic Robert Rosenblum to ask, "Is it blasphemous or respectful, simple-minded or recondite?"

Jasper Johns has often been seen as the intermediary between two art movements: Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. However, his long career of painting, sculpting and collaborative work stretches decades beyond this narrow slice of time in the mid-1950s. Drawing ideas from modern art movements of the 20th century and commercial culture, Johns forged a new path away from abstraction. Like the Pop artists who followed him, Johns transformed the appearance of easily read objects such as maps, targets and numbers.  Perhaps most importantly, he altered the way we perceive these symbols and exposed the underlying complexity in everyday iconography. His practice, however, was one of intensive painting, layering recognizable symbols with thick paint, encaustic, beeswax and other media.  Still working today, Jasper Johns remains interested in logic, language and exploring meaning through altered symbols. 

 

One night I dreamed I painted a large American flag, and the next morning I got up and I went out and bought the materials to begin it. And I did. I worked on that painting a long time. It's a very rotten painting—physically rotten—because I began it in house enamel paint, which you paint furniture with, and it wouldn't dry quickly enough. Then I had in my head this idea of something I had read or heard about: wax encaustic.

Jasper Johns 

Research:

  • Dada
  • Pop Art
  • Semiotics
  • Patriotism
 

Questions:

  1. Compare how the first American flag was made to how flags are made today.
  2. What materials do you think are best for making flags? Why?
  3. Describe Jasper Johns’ approach to painting flags; does his representation change the flag’s meaning?
  4. Do you think Flag is reverent or disrespectful? Explain why.
 
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