There is the American flag, and there is the painting “Flag” (1954–55) by Jasper Johns, which is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Flying over federal courthouses, churches, schools, post offices, lawns, construction sites and, in the months after 9/11, nearly ever taxi in New York, the American flag signifies nationalism and a set of ideals over which there has been increasingly rancorous debate. Each generation must wrestle with three basic questions: who is American, what does it mean to be an American and what is an American entitled to?
Amidst all the lies, accusations and fears currently flying about, I thought that, as a child of an anchor baby — my father was born in New York City in 1921 of a Chinese father and an English mother — it might be time to look again at ”Flag.”
Is the American flag a readymade that Jasper Johns chose because it is synonymous with the picture plane? Is “Flag” about nothing but itself, since a flag, like a painting, is basically a flat piece of colored cloth? Was this the cul-de-sac of purity that the artist was trying to reach when he tore a bed sheet into three different-sized rectangles, each corresponding to one section of the American flag: its canton (blue square with white stars), an adjacent rectangle that would contain the upper seven stripes (four red and three white) and a third rectangle comprising the lower six stripes (three red and three white), which run the entire length of the flag? Were the early writers about “Flag” right when they read it according to their belief that painting’s highest goal is self-reflexive, referring only to its essential identity as a two-dimensional plane? Or should “Flag” be read freshly?
Which is to say — should we accept the various doctrines that have been handed down to us, and work within the parameters established by previous generations? Or should we try to see “Flag” for ourselves?
The American flag is a symbol of unity and solace; it acknowledges the individual states, while accepting them into a union. The tension between the one (state and individual) and the many (union of states and community) is the contested ground. Who gets the power?
Did Johns empty out these considerations when he made his painting? Did he see the flag only as a ready-made waiting to happen? Is painting condemned to be only about itself, and thus be of such little consequence?
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Johns has always stated that the origin of “Flag” was a dream in which he saw himself painting the American flag. When he set out to make the painting, was the goal to reconstruct an American flag or to reconstruct the dream, the thing or his experience of the thing? Is “Flag” a flat object, as has been claimed? Or is it a compressed space consisting of collage material (pieces of newspaper and a strip of photographs) visible through a later of encaustic (beeswax)?
As a compressed space consisting of two inseparable but distinct layers, doesn’t the painting echo the dream experience, where the transition from one moment to another doesn’t follow any obvious narrative? (Here I would suggest that viewers reconsider Johns’s work since the mid-1980s. His “Untitled (A Dream),” 1985, the cycle of four paintings known as The Seasons, 1985–86, and the nineteen “catenary” paintings, 1997–2003, all consist of a compressed, layered space).
In his artist’s statement for the exhibition catalogue, Sixteen Americans (New York: Museum of Modern Art. 1959), Johns stated: “Generally, I am opposed to painting which is concerned with conceptions of simplicity. Everything looks busy to me.” Frank Stella, Louise Nevelson, Wally Hedrick and Jay DeFeo were also included in this exhibition. Isn’t Johns’s statement the diametrical opposite of Frank Stella’s famously terse proclamation about his paintings, “What you see is what you see”?
(And didn’t Wally Hedrick and Jay DeFeo go in directions that had little if anything to do with Pop Art and Minimalism? Wasn’t the art world of the 1950s and ’60s, to quote Johns, “busy?” Might it not be time to look at this entire period freshly? Or did the previous generations of curators, critics and collectors get it all right the first time?)
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In using a bed sheet as the ground for his painting, wouldn’t have Johns recognized that he is appropriating the site of dreams? Or that by cutting it up and putting it back together as a painting, his actions mirrored the act of analyzing a dream? And when putting his dream (painting) back together, did Johns realize that he was, in effect, uniting distinct states?
In the third white stripe from the top, visible to the naked eye only if very close to the surface, a collage fragment, covered by encaustic, contains the words “Pipe Dream.” The phrase is both significantly located (in the center of the rectangle) and correctly oriented (many of the other collage pieces lie on their side). The phrase comments on the affinity between the American flag and Johns’s painting: both are “pipe dreams.”
If the dream of America is the shared experience of those who founded and built the country according to a set of democratic ideals, Johns’s painting presents a different story: an isolated and isolating experience in which solitariness is the basic condition. The canton of the American flag displays the states that have joined the union. Johns’s canton, with each star cut from paper and dipped in encaustic, displays the dark blue sky as a field of isolated individuals dreaming their way through the night.
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One might be able to dismiss the collage fragment “Pipe Dream” as being meaningful if there are no other meaningful collage elements, but this is not the case. The words “United States,” made of embossed letters, peek through the blue encaustic on the right-hand side of the star in the lower-left-hand corner of the canton.
Tracing a circle’s circumference, the letters curl out from the star’s right side, like a trail of cosmic dust. Might not this dust be the state to which we will all be united one day, including the American flag and the geographical area on the map designated as the United States of America?
As long as there are those who believe that solace can be deferred, and that one’s rewards come in the afterlife, the idea of being entitled to dignity in living and dying can be denied. The understanding of reality that Johns leads us to, its separateness and transience, and of time passing, lends a different tenor to the argument over who is American, what it means to be an American and what an American is entitled to.
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In using a bed sheet for “Flag,” Johns transformed painting’s traditional figure/ground relationship into an inquiry about the dreamer and the dream, the individual and reality. Where does the dreamer end and the dream begin? It is important to note that Johns has never made all-over paintings, even when he used clusters of hatch marks during the 1970s and early ’80s.
All-over painting did not completely supplant figure/ground relationships, as Clement Greenberg and others have theorized. Jackson Pollock’s all-over paintings superseded the conventional notions of the figure/ground relationship. Johns, however, didn’t derive his understanding of the figure/ground relationship from earlier examples of art, but from his recognition that the individual lives amidst flux and is borne along by time. It is why Johns, in his 1959 artist statement, also cited “Leonardo’s idea (‘Therefore, O painter, do not surround your bodies with lines … ) that the boundary of a body is neither part of the enclosed body nor part of the surrounding atmosphere.”
(I am advancing that Jasper Johns — and he is not alone in this — transformed the figure/ground relationship into way of exploring the bonds between the individual in time and infinite time or the abyss.)
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In “Flag,” Johns recognized that the figure (stars), ground (night sky), identity (the strip of photographs), time passing and day-to-day existence (newspaper fragments) are both indivisible and subject to radical change (the encaustic could melt and the paper and fabric could burn if exposed to heat). The American flag may guarantee certain constitutional rights, but it can’t grant either itself (as a piece of cloth or as a work of art) or us (as American citizens or as immigrants, documented and otherwise) security from time.
This should be the starting point of any discussion about what it means to live and die under the American flag.
Single Point Perspective is an occasional series from Hyperallergic Weekend that features texts about single works of art and the currents they ride on.