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Johns, White Flag

Met curator Ian Alteveer on reticence in Jasper Johns’s White Flag, 1955.

Born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1930 and raised in South Carolina, Jasper Johns moved in 1949 to New York City, where he enrolled in a commercial art school for two semesters. Back in New York, following his service in the army (ca. 1950–51), Johns became acquainted with artist Robert Rauschenberg, composer John Cage, and dancer Merce Cunningham. By the mid- to late 1950s Johns had already achieved fame with his paintings of targets, numerals, and American flags, and his work was exhibited in prominent museums and galleries in New York. "White Flag" of 1955, recently acquired by the Metropolitan from the artist's own collection, exemplifies Johns's early style, which engendered a wide range of subsequent art movements, among them Pop Art, Minimal Art, and Conceptual Art. During the 1950s and 1960s Johns frequently appropriated well-known images (such as targets, flags, and beer cans), elevating them to cultural icons. Throughout his oeuvre — which includes painting, prints, drawings, and sculpture — images are constantly recycled and combined in extensive series. In his later compositions of the 1970s, Johns filled the surface of his pictures with colorful cross-hatchings (suggested by the passing cars on an expressway); and since the 1980s he has incorporated images that have more autobiographical significance.

"White Flag" is the largest of his flag paintings and the first in which the flag is presented in monochrome. By draining most of the color from the flag but leaving subtle gradations in tone, the artist shifts our attention from the familiarity of the image to the way in which it is made. "White Flag" is painted on three separate panels: the stars, the seven upper stripes to the right of the stars, and the longer stripes below. Johns worked on each panel separately. After applying a ground of unbleached beeswax, he built up the stars, the negative areas around them, and the stripes with applications of collage—cut or torn pieces of newsprint, other papers, and bits of fabric. He dipped these into molten beeswax and adhered them to the surface. He then joined the three panels and overpainted them with more beeswax mixed with pigments, adding touches of white oil.

The fast-setting medium of encaustic enabled Johns to make each brushstroke distinct, while the forty-eight-star flag design—contiguous with the perimeters of the canvas— provided a structure for the richly varied surface, which ranges from translucent to opaque.

View this work on metmuseum.org.

Created by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Want to join the conversation?

  • purple pi purple style avatar for user Residuum
    How did people view this when it was unveiled? The american flag is pretty sacred object to some, and I assume this drastically different version of it might not sit well with some people.
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user

Video transcript

As a young art historian, I was attracted to many of John’s contemporaries who used abstract expressionist bright colors. John’s was always difficult for me everything in the work seems to be veiled. It took awhile to discover certain wonderful secrets. This marvelously, mysterious ghost of an American flag seems to hide itself behind these layers of built up wax. The work is reticent even a little chilly perhaps even a little chilly. I wanted to look behind that surface. You see tantalizing glimpses of headlines coming through, pictures from the newspaper pages almost visible. almost visible. One might think this has to do with some sort of politics., but John’s says the idea to paint an American flag came to him in a dream. For him it really is about having a structure that’s preexisting within whose boundaries he can experiment. The work is really radical in its texture. If you look closely at the stars each one is separately cut out and collaged onto the surface. Another experiment is the use of encaustic paint, hot beeswax that cools instantly, so you have the possibility of a rapid painting approach that at the same time capture each and every individual brushstroke within the surface. It’s almost like a sculpture. It has a kind of relief surface. It’s also made out of three different canvases and that also messes with our idea of what makes a painting. One of the meanings perhaps of this work is that we don’t have access to everything we want to have access to. We don’t really understand the ghost-like things that come to us in our dreams. We don’t always understand what we read in the newspaper. We don’t understand fully how this nation was put together. As I warmed up to this work, I realized that a work can be inscrutable and you can still love it. For me, that’s one of the really intense meanings of this work. John’s is one of those amazing artists whose work with you as a viewer is never finished.