NY Art Commentary

Three Flags - Jasper Johns

Commentary - NewYorkArtWorld.com

The mature work of Jasper Johns begins in 1955 with his use of the American flag.

In the expressionist paint strokes of John's flags, the vocabulary of geometry reentered American art. And the application of painterly richness of surface to a commonplace American icon signaled the transition from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art.

The single flag - and later the target shape, arabic numerals, and letters of the alphabet - became the ubiquitous subject matter of the first period of Johns's art.

From the beginning, Johns divested the flag of its original symbolic and conventional aesthetic usage. Instead, he transformed it into data for examining perception, visual ambiguity, and the meaning of art itself.

What Johns painted was not the wavy, windblown banner of flagpoles and parades, but the flat, rigid flag characteristic of American folk art and craft.


Jasper Johns Flags
© Jasper Johns (b. 1930)
Photography by Geoffrey Clements.

Three Flags, 1958
Encaustic on Canvas
30 7/8 x 45 1/2 x 5 inches

50th Anniversary Gift of the Gilman Foundation, Inc., the Lauder Foundation, A. Alfred Taubman.

The Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC.

The Whitney Museum of American Art was founded in 1930 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Since then its permanent collection has grown to much more than 6,000 works - drawings, paintings, photographs, prints and sculpture. - and now embodies a substantial portion of the history of American art of the 20th century.

This decision had less to do with evoking American folk tradition than with transforming a charged patriotic symbol into a subdued compositional proposition. His single-flag images never suggested spatial depth; they defied the usual pictorial structure of figure against ground. In the culminating work of the first period of John's art, Three Flags, the subject became its own ground.

Each of the tiered flags is is diminished in scale by about twenty-five percent from the one behind, and projects outward, directly contrary to standard pictorial perspective. The interplay of one complete and two partially visible flags serves to emphasize both design and dimension. Instead of pictorializing the flag, as he had in earlier paintings, in Three Flags, Johns transformed it into an object.

Written by Patterson Sims

Associate Curator, Permanent Collection, The Whitney Museum of American Art


Jasper Johns - A Retrospective Exhibition

At the Whitney Museum, New York

October 18, 1977 through January 22, 1978

Born in Augusta, Georgia in 1930, Jasper Johns entered the world during economic depression years. Nevertheless, he attended the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Following military service at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and in Sendai. Japan, he returned to New York where he supported himself by working in a book store and by designing commercial displays.

The well-known paintings of flags, targets and numbers were begun in 1954-55, and shown in John's first one-man exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1958. The following year, Johns was included in The Sixteen Americans Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and has since been represented in international exhibitions throughout the world.

Retrospective exhibitions of his work were held at the Columbia Museum of Art, South Carolina in 1960; at the Jewish Museum, New York; and at the Whitechapel Gallery, London in 1964; and at the Pasadena Art Museum, California in 1955. Large exhibitions of drawings by Johns were organized in 1966 by the Smithsonian Institution's National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington D.C., and in 1974-75 by the Arts Council of Great Britain. In 1970, both the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art and the Museum of Modern Art held major print retrospectives.

In 1963, Jasper Johns had been a director for Contemporary Performance Arts; and in 1967 had served as Artistic Advisor to Merce Cunningham and dance company. Johns was elected to the membership to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1973.

In 1977, Johns had a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art where presented 201 works of art made between 1955 and 1976.

Several of the early paintings were shown, and almost of John's sculptures to date, were included. The selection of drawings in this exhibition illustrated the full range of his work in graphics and demonstrated the elegance and innovative brilliance which Johns had brought to art of lithography since 1960.

Since there were so many examples of lithography, etching, silkscreen and lead relief, being displayed, it provided an opportunity to examine Jasper John's career in printmaking and also to compare his treatment of related imagery through different media.

This exhibition also displayed the large-scale paintings that Johns had made from 1962 through 1972.

Michael Crichton, the distinguished novelist and film director, at time, authored "Jasper Johns" the book that included 250 illustrations, published by Harry N. Abrams, in association with the Whitney Museum




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