Why Did Jasper Johns Paint the Flag Time and Again?

The American flag remains an important symbol in art throughout the 20th century, especially in the domain of pop art. In the context of art, one artist’s interpretations of the flag are more famous than any other: those of Jasper Johns. The flag, along with other US symbols, became his leitmotif and the subject of his most important works.

american flag jasper johns

What Is Jasper Johns’ Most Famous Piece?

Do you know the story of the American artist who created a famous series of paintings featuring the United States flag and why he did it? Jasper Johns is a well-known American artist. He is most famous for his paintings and reiterations of paintings of the American flag: some are monochrome, others use alternative color palette variations, and some are done in the traditional tricolor pattern. His work is widely regarded as an important contribution to the Pop Art movement, which emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. But his story is more nuanced.

Johns did his very first American flag painting in 1954. Over the course of his career, he would go on to make dozens of works based on the flag, which he collectively dubbed “painted flags and paintings of a flag.” 

What Is Jasper Johns’ Style of Art?

The work of this American painter, sculptor, and printmaker is associated with Neo-Dada, Abstract Expressionism, and Pop Art. Johns was among the first to base art on common everyday objects. Much of his work is understood as abstract, but his approach was largely representational. On top of that, much of his artwork features the US flag and other representational symbols. He had no interest in subject matter that was cut off from everyday life. What makes Johns’ work so special is his unique interpretation of the American flag as a symbol of both patriotism and artistic expression. 

A man who once said: “To be an artist you have to give up everything, including the desire to be a good artist”, Jasper Johns is one of the most elusive and mysterious artists of the 20th Century. Much about his life and work is shrouded in mystery. He was never willing to discuss the dark symbolism he employed in his work. He has been elusive in interviews, reluctant to reveal biographical information publicly, and has carefully controlled access to his past. If anything, this shines a whole new light on his creative obsession with the flag.

Why Did Jasper Johns Paint His Flag So Many Times?

Johns’ paintings of the American flag are characterized by their bold colors and simple, graphic design. His use of encaustic, which is a painting technique that involves mixing pigments with hot wax, gives his work a distinctive texture and depth. 

But what really sets Johns’s work apart is his ability to take a familiar symbol like the American flag and transform it into something new and unexpected. The artist was exposed to European avant-garde ideas and influenced by the Dada movement. His use of the flag was not centered around a desire to uphold traditional values, but to question them.

In 1955, when Jasper Johns was a young artist attending Yale University, he was commissioned to design a picture for the cover of Time Magazine’s 25th Anniversary Issue. The subject had to be Americana, an American flag seemed like just about the perfect choice (“The United States – It Flies Again!”). Apparently and coincidentally, the artist had a dream about the flag the previous year.

John’s intention was to try to integrate the American flag into an abstract painting. He chose a bright, post-war red, white, and blue. The proportions were warped and changed, so not your typical stripes. They were askew, mixed up, and seemingly random. 

The stars were in circles instead of regular patterns, and there were two additional ones striped inside the red stripes, with one white star in each upper corner. Johns had been playing with this idea of mixing up basic geometric shapes for a while now, and he had already been using circles instead of dots for eyes in his drawing. He wanted to make abstract pictures that looked like something specific and recognizable, adding meaning by inflection rather than creating actual images.

What Was Jasper Johns’ Technique?

Jasper Johns used a variety of media throughout his career. At first, Johns was skeptical and wary about screenprinting. He only really began using flags in earnest around 1954-1955, when he started working with stencils and paint.  

Johns’ first screenprint, “American Flag (1955),” was made using a paintbrush, a squeegee, and a stencil. The effect was that of an abstract painting. He had deliberately made these prints messy as if they were handmade. 

He pieced the image together and submitted it. But the work was returned to Johns three times due to the negative response it elicited from the influential people that were asked to view it. That did not stop him from going on to create over 100 flags over the course of his career. Each of these works was asking the viewer to reexamine and reconsider the American flag.

Johns used a stencil on several works to help him experiment with his work. The corresponding stencils were almost identical to each other, except for their size. Each used a circle cut out of one side of an American flag. Johns would create stencils by drawing around circles on paper with a felt-tip pen before using it to make the stencils. He applied the stencil to the canvas, peeled it back, and then added the paint. After this was completed, Johns hung each piece of work up on a wall. The work was changed and altered only slightly by Johns as he used it over time.

The American Flag by Jasper Johns, Time and Again

This screenprint was not the first time that Johns had experimented with an American flag, but it was the first time he had been able to trace his hand while creating the work. Around 1952-1953, Johns began experimenting with a few different variations of an American flag design. For his first experiment, he used a stencil and painted it on paper. He then traced over this artwork using ink. 

On another canvas, he painted around the whole stencil outline with acrylic paint, which resulted in an abstract form reminiscent of ancient Greek art. He took this painting back to his studio and added more paint to it, keeping in mind how transparent it must be for viewers to see through it (like a veil). He wanted some of the white dots to glow, so he painted blue and red ovals over them. He used a stencil again, this time tracing the whole outline again using ink.

Johns then took a razor blade and cut out the stenciled oval shapes that were still visible in his original painting. Some of the ink was still left on the canvas underneath these markings. The images from these silhouetted sections were then transferred to acetate sheets, just like those used for separations in photography studios. He then used a roller painter to paint over the red stripes, concentrating on making it appear as if there was no black border around the edges. He used the stencils to paint over the other red sections of his paintings. Johns repeated this process, making three or four versions of his work on paper before transferring it onto canvas.

One of Jasper Johns’ American flag paintings, “Three Flags,” is a wall-mounted relief composed of wood and painted canvas. It is blue, white, and red, and has three American flags that are cut out around the edges. It was created using the same method described above (with the stencils), but rather than using a razor blade to cut out sections of the flags in his original painting, Johns did so directly on this piece. Some of the black borders are in the shadows, and some are out in the open. 

Exploration through Reinterpretation

Jasper Johns’ first screenprint was a clear sign of his desire to take art to the next level. It was his first foray into abstraction and his first attempt at creating something with more meaning than just its physical form. The fact that it is such a globally familiar object as the American flag further justifies this, as does the fact that he played around with it for so long. 

Through his art, Johns challenges our assumptions about what we think we know about the world around us. He invites us to see things in a different way, to question our preconceived notions, and to find beauty in unexpected places. For this reason, Jasper Johns’ paintings of the American flag continue to captivate audiences today.