According to What: With America at War and Midterm Elections at Hand, Art Historian Anne M. Wagner Reframes Jasper Johns's Flag, 1954-55

By Wagner, Anne M. | Artforum International, November 2006 | Go to article overview
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According to What: With America at War and Midterm Elections at Hand, Art Historian Anne M. Wagner Reframes Jasper Johns's Flag, 1954-55


Wagner, Anne M., Artforum International


If there is one thing that the past five years have taught us, it is that as both sign and image, the United States flag has staying power. It is not neutral. It provokes. Its display both transcends and summons party politics; it invokes the violence of history but still claims to survive the worst that history can do. Hence, to represent the flag is to convey the ambiguous powers of the nation-state. What the flag means is not obvious--it depends on how and where it appears. Does the Stars and Stripes mock its subjects? Veil them? Erase them? The flag did all this and more in The Americans, the famous suite of photographs taken by Robert Frank in 1955-56. These are the images in which, as Jack Kerouac wrote three years later, the "EVERYTHING-ness" of America is made visible--an everythingness based on difference, as Frank well knew. (1)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

To image the flag is inevitably to open the question that lies at the core of this essay: What is the individual's ongoing relation to, or belonging within, the national culture she may serve or criticize, but which has also helped shape her life and thought? This is the question embodied by Jasper Johns's Flag. It has never been more relevant than now.

Why study Flag? I have made the choice carefully--I guess that's the best word--though polemically also comes to mind. The decision does not arise from any absence of earlier studies or from any long-standing allegiance to Johns as an artist, but because I think his flags give access to exactly those issues that any citizen ought to have on her mind. As so often, the key questions engage politics while also defining an art form, painting. They do so directly, as Johns's first Flag, laboriously manufactured in 1954-55, aimed to declare. To be even more specific, I am concerned with the coming together, within a single image, of politics and painting: Flag provides an immediate and local instantiation of both terms. It also volatilizes the question of art's role within what we often too blandly term "context": At issue is the national and political culture to which art belongs.

Much of my account depends on getting in place at least a bare-bones description of this object--how it looks and was made. The process was elaborate. By now it has been carefully inventoried by others, especially Fred Orton, whose findings I rely on but can now expand. (2) Here is what Johns did: Using a bedsheet as backing and pencil marks as guidelines, he built up the familiar pattern using small pieces of cloth and newsprint he had torn or cut into bits. We know from a photograph taken by Robert Rauschenberg that at least within the field of stars, the process obscured an initial layer of drawing: sub-Cubist geometries that at one point, whether accidentally or otherwise, came together to suggest the cheek, jaw, and mouth of a glamorous female face--the sort of visage de Kooning saw as epitomizing the seductions of Woman. Yet all this was soon enough covered by bits of fabric or paper that were dangerously dipped in hot wax--blue, white, or red--and pressed into place within the penciled scaffolding of lines. Rauschenberg's photo records the tins and tubs of Johns's homemade apparatus, as well as the requisite wax; the process seems so makeshift that Johns's comment in the mid-1960s that "it's in sort of bad shape; it tends to fall to pieces" makes perfect sense. (3) Sometimes the printed snippets were obscured by the wax or the layering, but at many places they can still be read by the naked eye--ads, cartoons, headlines. The familiar press repertoire is sampled with each utterly ordinary fragment: real estate promotions; the help-wanteds; stock reports; mentions, yes, of the Middle East and the State Department; advice from a "Famous Hollywood Figure Telling You How to Reduce"--with all this speaking to and of the texture of everyday life; Kerouac's "everythingness" in metonymic form. There is even a recipe, not for apple pie, granted, but for applesauce, which, when comfortable normalcy is to be signaled, can certainly serve as second-best.

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