20TH CENTURY ART
Jasper Johns is one of most important and influential American painters of the twentieth century. To understand why, let’s look at one of his most famous paintings titled Three Flags. He painted it in 1958.
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Three Flags is basically a painting of three American flags, displayed flat and unfolded, lying one on top of another. There’s a small one closest to you that you see completely, a slightly larger one behind that, and the largest flag is behind both of them. For the last two, you can only see parts of the flags, around their edges.
The flags are in the traditional colors, thirteen horizontal stripes alternating red and white, and a rectangle of blue in the upper left corner holding six rows of white stars for a total of 48. Remember, Johns painted this in 1958, before Alaska and Hawaii became states.
So Three Flags seems at first glance to be a patriotic painting celebrating the nation’s symbol. And maybe it is. Some critics suggest that Jasper Johns painted American flags because he was named after a military hero in the Revolutionary War, Sergeant William Jasper. Maybe.
And maybe the painting Three Flags is about something else.
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Three Flags is an example of how Johns often used images and techniques from popular mass culture, things like advertising, comic books, and as Johns once said, “things the mind already knows.” Like the American flag. His work seemed partly a reaction to Abstract Expressionism, an art movement of the time whose paintings had no recognizable content all.
Everyone could recognize the American flags. But their meaning could be just as elusive as an Abstract Expressionist painting. For instance, everyone who looks at a painting of the American flag will find their own meaning, depending on things like your age, your politics, your nationality, the times in which you live. But maybe Johns didn’t care what meaning you give to the flags. Maybe he wanted you to look at the painting as a painting. To make that point clearer, here’s a bit more verbal description of the painting Three Flags.
Johns did not work with oil paint. Instead he used encaustic, also called hot wax painting, a technique in which an artist mixes beeswax with color pigments. The result is a thick surface on the canvas that you can easily see. And Johns laid it on so thick that the painting is 5 inches deep. The smallest painting, closest to you, is sticking out 5 inches above the largest painting beneath it. It almost seems like a sculpture, or maybe a tapestry, hanging on the wall. Maybe Johns is asking you to consider the question, what is a painting? His answer: it’s a visual object, something in itself. Just look at it.