What Does a Jasper Johns Flag Stand For?

Let’s start by being factual. Since creating his first American flag painting in 1954—two years after being honorably discharged from the Army—Jasper Johns has made over 40 works based on the flag including monochrome and triple flag variations. Johns has said that these works are both “painted flags and paintings of a flag.” As a boy, Johns was told by his father that he had been named in honor of Sergeant William Jasper, a hero who had recovered and re-flown a Moultrie flag at Fort Sullivan on June 28, 1776, after a British shell destroyed its flagstaff.

The Fort Moultrie Flag

So, just to correct a widely-held Art World myth, Jasper Johns is not descended from a hero who rescued an American flag. Yes, Johns is named for a patriot who saved a flag, but it was the one you see above, not the revolutionary stars and stripes (see example below)

An American flag circa 1777

With that correction in place it’s time to talk about what is known about why Johns painted the flag and what he wanted it to stand for. That will take us into a situation where facts are sparse, meanings are murky and questions will multiply. A good place to start would seem to be considering what the artist himself has said about the origins and meanings of his flag. Then again, when David Sylvester interviewed Johns in 1965 the artist mainly offered up trivialities: the idea came to him in a dream, it was painted with encaustic since enamel didn’t dry quickly enough, etc. etc.
But if you listen carefully to what Johns says 2:20 into the video clip of the Sylvester interview something interesting happens. Johns breaks into nervous laughter as he offers this anecdote: “My Aunt Gladys, when she read the thing in the magazine, wrote me a letter saying she was so proud of me because she had worked so hard to instill some respect for the American flag in her students... and she was so glad (breaking into laughter) that the mark had been left (more laughter) on me.”
The point that cracks Johns up—that his aunt Gladys had tried to instill respect for the American flag—is a telling one. For the record, after living with his paternal grandparents until the age of nine (his parents had divorced when he was a toddler) Johns had been raised by his aunt during adolescence and also taught by her—along with two other students—in a one-room Georgia schoolhouse. As his dismissive laughter indicates, Johns later moved far beyond his provincial education. By the time he made his first flag Johns was an artist and cosmopolitan living in New York; a gay man whose aesthetics and interests were increasingly shaped by his exposure to European avant-garde ideas, especially those of Marcel Duchamp.
It is commonly said that Jasper Johns made his greatest works by placing common signs and symbols—numbers, maps, flags etc.—into a Dada context. If you aren’t familiar with Dada, please consider the following:
Dada was the first conceptual art movement where the focus of the artists was not on crafting aesthetically pleasing objects but on making works that often upended bourgeois sensibilities and that generated difficult questions about society, the role of the artist, and the purpose of art. - theartstory.org
What had European Dada artists done with potent signs and symbols? German Dada artists notably offered up challenging imagery that protested the rise of Nazism. The photomontage seen below, published by John Heartfield in 1934, reconfigures a medieval image of a Christian martyr broken by a wheel with the Nazi swatstika to make a chilling analogy concerning Nazi persecutions. As the world now knows, Heartfield’s work was shockingly prophetic.

John Heartfield, The Middle Ages and the Third Reich, 1934 photomontage

Heartfield’s scathing collage was meant to be utterly clear and uncompromising. His goal was to subvert the triumphal implications of the swatstika as it was used in Nazi propaganda. Johns, on the other hand, has consistently been the author of Dada-infused images that are distinctly and intentionally vague in their meanings. Even though his flags and targets appeared after the first McCarthy hearings (which began on April 22, 1954) Johns makes no direct reference to them.
Are there oblique references in a Johns flag or target? To patriotism, paranoia and the subjectivity of truth? Likely yes. Does the artist want you tell you anything specific about himself or his personal views? Definitely not. As he once said “To me, self-description is a calamity.”

In regards to Johns’ flags, when seeing them in person It is interesting to look closely and see the fragments of yellowed newspaper text peeking through. In the case of the 1967 flag on view at The Broad in Los Angeles, there are bits and pieces of the New York Times. Yes, these words were once part of a coherent front page, carefully contextualized and ordered. In a Johns flag painting they are reduced to fragments and gibberish, organized with frustrating subjectivity by a creative mind. Like the nervous laughter Johns emits when talking about the letter from his Aunt Gladys, the imagery of his flags is meant to deflect further exploration. Bits and pieces are all you can expect to get.
At least he isn’t trying to indoctrinate you to some fixed set of beliefs, right? You have to think for yourself. Interestingly, the efforts that his aunt made to engender a respect for the flag actually worked, but not in the manner that she expected. For Johns, “respect” seems to involve an active and ongoing commitment to seeking and questioning ideas and values.

An American flag carried by a pickup truck in Southern California

Perhaps the most important thing that Jasper Johns did with his flag paintings was to take the American flag out of its normal context. By bringing it into the gallery—and museums shortly followed—he was telling all of us that it could and should be seen in a fresh way. I was thinking about this the other day when I saw an American flag in the back of a pickup truck parked near my local market. Having a flag in the back of a truck—and I have been seeing a lot of this lately—also seems to be an exercise in taking the flag out of its normal context. When you take the flag off the flagpole or out of the classroom there is a kind of “claiming” going on that suggests it now means something extraordinary.
The American flag played a personal role for Johns when he painted it: to open up the symbolic richness of what had once been presented to him as a fixed symbol. If you really think about it, Johns is ultimately interested in liberty, just as his ancestor Sergeant William Jasper was: that was in fact the single word present on the flag that he rescued. Liberty includes free thought and free speech, and Jasper Johns’ flags were born from those values and also encourage them on the part of those who view and contemplate his art.
In regards, to the flag I saw on the black truck, I’m not sure entirely what kind of patriotic values its driver wants to celebrate with his display. I didn’t stop to ask him. I’m pretty sure he and others like him who display their flags on pickups, might be interested in a very different type of conversation than the open-ended dialog that Jasper Johns clearly respects.
Displaying a flag to flaunt your patriotism is very different from painting one to celebrate your freedom to do so.
A Note:
“Something Resembling Truth,” a survey exhibition of the works of Jasper Johns, will be coming to the Broad Museum in Los Angeles in February of 2018.