The year was 1958, and I still remember the jolt of seeing Three Flags (fig. 95) for the first time down at Johns's Pearl Street studio. I was hardly unprepared, having already been stopped in my tracks that January by Johns's first one-man show at Leo Castelli's, where what then looked like the most candid restatement of the Stars and Stripes suddenly ground the traffic of all of American painting to a halt that made you stare and stare again. But even with that picture some months behind me, Three Flags almost literally bowled me over. For here, that red, white, and blue platitude, preserved for eternity as a flat painting, leaped out of the middle of the canvas like a jack-in-the-box, defying gravity and assaulting the viewer headon. Especially for eyes accustomed to the murky, private labyrinths of color and shape in most painting of the 1950s, the strident clarity of Three Flags looked the way a C-major chord played by three trumpets might sound: a clarion call that could rouse the sleepiest spectator.
Today, twenty-two years later, and even after Three Flags has become an internationally famous textbook image via a colorplate in H. W. Janson renowned History of Art, its astonishing impact--not only visual and mental, but even physical--has barely diminished.