Icon and irony: Jasper Johns, Flag

The flag is a potent symbol—it has different meanings for different viewers

Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954-55 (dated on reverse 1954), encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric mounted on plywood, three panels, 42-1/4 x 60-5/8" / 107.3 x 153.8 cm (MoMA)

Key points

  • The image is painted in encaustic, which allows the viewer to see the layers of newspaper beneath the painted surface. This process reflects the dense history and complex meaning embedded in the symbol of the American flag.
  • As a precursor to Pop Art of the 1960s, Johns was one of the first artists to make art based on common everyday objects.
  • By representing a flag, Johns eliminated the artist’s subjective role to choose color and forms to express an idea, and thus forces us to reconsider these things traditionally valued in art.

Go deeper

This painting at MoMA

Jasper Johns on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Deborah Solomon, “Jasper Johns Still Doesn’t Want to Explain His Art,” The New York Times (2018)


Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.