One on One: Dominic Willsdon on Jasper Johns

June 29, 2009  |  By
Filed under: One on One
Jasper Johns, _Flag_, 1958. On extended loan from Jean Christophe Castelli.

Jasper Johns, _Flag_, 1958. On extended loan from Jean Christophe Castelli.

My Aunt Gladys once, when she read a thing in a magazine, wrote me a letter, saying she was so proud of me, because she had worked so hard to instill some respect for the American flag in her students, and she was glad the mark had been left on me.

―Jasper Johns to Emile de Antonio.

I’m next up with one of our weekly One-on-One curator talks, Thursday 2 July at 6.30pm.Someone had the idea that the British curator should do 4th of July weekend.I’m going to be talking about Jasper Johns’ Flag (1958), one of his series of pictures, if they are pictures, of the flag of the United States.SFMOMA has another of these (not now on view), from 1960-69, made from lead.The first in the series, Flag (1954-55), is in the collection of MoMA in New York.

I know this series fairly well.I used to teach about it at Open University residential schools in the late 1990s, relying on Fred Orton’s book Figuring Jasper Johns, and the related curriculum materials he made for the OU.The quotations in this post, (three from Emile de Antonio’s 1973 film Painters Painting), my facts, and many of my ideas about Flag come from that book.I’d say that Orton—who was associated with the Conceptual Art group Art & Language—sees Johns from a Conceptual Art perspective. About the Flag in the MoMA collection Orton asks a Conceptualist’s question: is it a flag or a painting?In other words, has Johns made a painting of a flag, or made a flag with paint?

When I stopped teaching his work, I didn’t think about Johns again for a long while, until, recently, I saw a poster of a Johns Flag, quite large, hanging in the Visa Section of the U.S. Embassy in London.I’ve seen it there a few times in the last couple of years, at various interviews.There are a couple of other posters of paintings and, of course, there are some other American flags (though not as many as you would expect).The flag-like object in SFMOMA (or MoMA) is probably not a flag, nor is the poster of Flag in the Museum Store; the poster in the Embassy, I’m not so sure.And if someone stuck a poster of Flag in the window of his big rig, or burned one in a street somewhere, it’s a flag. Meaning is use.

Some people thought he was anti-American… that he was a man who protested against the symbols of America, the flag. At the time there really was no special reason for it: there was no Vietnam War… There was McCarthy.No, McCarthy had disappeared a long time before that.

―Leo Castelli to Emile de Antonio.

The original Flag, of 1954-55, was in Johns’ first solo show at the Leo Castelli Gallery, in New York, in January and February 1958.Alfred H. Barr Jr., former Director of MoMA but at that time the Director of Collections, wanted to acquire it for the Museum.The acquisition was blocked by the Committee on the Museum Collection (someone wondered if buying Flag ‘might not leave the Museum open to attack from groups like the American Legion’), and the matter was referred to the Board of Trustees.The Board also decided against buying Flag, ‘fearing that it would offend patriotic sensibilities’.The work eventually entered the MoMA collection in 1973, as the gift of Philip Johnson (who had been an anti-Johns member of the Committee on the Museum Collection in 1958), in honor of Barr on the occasion of his retirement.

By 1958, McCarthy had disappeared, but in 1954 he hadn’t yet.The Army-McCarthy Hearings (widely televised at the time, and, by the way, the subject of de Antonio’s amazing 1964 film Point of Order!) took place in the summer of that year, not long before Johns conceived of Flag.Patriotism and the flag were hot issues in 1954.On Flag Day, 14 June, Eisenhower approved controversial legislation that added the words ‘under God’ to the Pledge of Allegiance.On 10 November, the dedication of the Iwo Jima Marine Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery took place.Johns, himself, had been discharged from the army only two years before.Is Johns’ Flag for or against the American flag?Impossible to say.

The Flag on view now at SFMOMA was painted in 1958, shortly after the Castelli show.Like the ’54-55 Flag, it shows the 26th flag of the United States, with 48 stars (the 27th flag was instituted 4 July, 1959, and the twenty-eighth and current flag, on 4 July, 1960, following the granting of statehood to Alaska and Hawaii; later Flags by Johns show the 50 star version). SFMOMA’s Flag is, in fact, not in this museum’s collection.It is on extended loan from Leo Castelli’s son Jean Christophe.We’re very lucky to have it.It was previously shown in the Centre Pompidou’s 2001 exhibition Les Années Pop (The Pop Years), and before that—I love this fact—it was on loan to the US Embassy in Paris for the tenure of Ambassador Felix G. Rohatyn.Imagine it hanging in the Ambassador’s office.It originally entered France as diplomatic cargo, and when the painting came to San Francisco, transport was again facilitated by the US State Department.

Emile de Antonio: What about Dada?

Jasper Johns: ‘What about Dada?’ What kind of question is that? ‘What about Dada?’

My remarks here have been about what kind of flag Flag is. On Thursday, I’ll say some things about what kind of painting it is, about the lesson of Marcel Duchamp, lessons for Andy Warhol, and the glorious indifference Flag seems to have toward something that you would think it impossible to be indifferent about.I hope you can be there.

8 Comments

  1. Julian Myers Says:

    “Is Johns’ Flag for or against the American flag?” you write “Impossible to say.”

    We shouldn’t be too trusting of Johns’ own pronouncements on this subject (though the amused irony in the quote with which you begin should tell us something). While it may be hard to say whether Johns was for or against the symbol itself – what would it mean, anyways, to be “against” a sign? – it certainly is possible to make convincing claims about the artwork’s consideration of American politics and hegemony, to argue for and decide what the flag series might mean, to decide upon how it addressed the politics of its moment. One might look to Benjamin Buchloh’s reading of the works (in Neo-Avant-Garde and Culture Industry, 2000); or J.M. Bernstein’s (in New Left Review, 1997); or, in particular, Anne Wagner’s reading of it as a “realist” work in her essay, “According to What” (Artforum, 2006). One could say that it is only from a certain perspective, or view of politics, that Johns’ meaning becomes impossible to guess.

  2. Dominic Says:

    Thanks for the suggested further reading, Julian. The Buchloh book is the only one I have, though, and I can only find some brief references to Flag in an essay about Warhol. Am I missing something? I’d be interested in reading Anne Wagner’s essay; my course at the OU was about Realism. I wonder if she focuses on the 1954-55 Flag, which has a collaged underlay of fragments of newspapers (adds to the Realist character). The one in SFMOMA doesn’t have that. As it happens, Jay Bernstein was my professor in grad school. He is a wonderful thinker and teacher, but I have never quite shared his art interests.

    For sure, there are many interpretations of Flag, and the meaning of the work (not “Johns’ meaning”, remember), seems different from different perspectives. Its a work that seems able to support various agendas and needs, including those of art historians. Do you have a perspective, an interpretation that you’d like to share?

    Having to think about Johns’ Flag this week, for this blog and the talk, I find myself connecting it with two other works which, quite by chance, I’m looking at right now. One is Robert Frank’s photo series The Americans, which is also at SFMOMA, and was produced around the same time as Johns’ first Flags, and which includes half a dozen US flags (e.g. in #17 “Fourth of July: Jay, New York, 1954). The Americans, as a whole is one of my favorite artworks. The other is Richard Ford’s amazing novel Independence Day, which I just happen to be halfway through. I don’t know what the connections are. It is something to do with being factual in America. I doubt I’ll work it out by tomorrow.

  3. Julian Myers Says:

    Hi Dom,

    It’s less that I have a reading that I aim to “share” – not enough scare-quotes in the world for that verb – but that I wanted to argue against your idea “there are many (valid) interpretations of Flag.” The paintings place limits on how one might understand them, precisely in their form and subject matter. Some readings have attended to these limits, forms and subjects; others haven’t.

    Wagner’s does, for example – and in attending to those matters, she gets at what is specifically political about the work. (A hacked up version is here: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0268/is_3_45/ai_n27100818/?tag=content;col1 – you’ll notice she makes your Frank comparison in the first paragraph). Hers is a committed viewpoint. But – and this is my only point – so is yours, in its self-conscious equanimity. Do you REALLY think that the Visa office got something right about Johns? And if so, what in the world do you think they were saying with it? Perhaps some cynical version of, “America tolerates many viewpoints…”

  4. Dominic Says:

    Thanks for the link to Wagner’s essay. I very much appreciate her remarks: e.g. about what it might mean to create such a painting at a time, the 1950s, when the Americanness of American painting was at issue. I like that she sees it as both literal and equivocal or ambivalent.

    Equanimity is also a good word for what it has. Is it a ‘committed’ work, in anything like the sense of 1930s Realism (i.e. engaged with a practical project for social change)? I don’t find it to be so. Wagner selects carefully (and that’s fine) which Flags to discuss, she focuses a lot on those with collaged newspaper elements, creating a kind of underlay of fragments of social life. She wants to say that the flag design strait-jackets the sheer “EVERYTHING-ness” of American society (quoting Jack Kerouac on Robert Frank’s The Americans) that the collages depict. The SFMOMA Flag (and others in the series) does not have these elements. That connection to social life is not essential to the Flag series.

    Does she ‘get it right’, to use your phrase (and her phrase too)? Put it this way, I find that she says persuasive things about certain of Johns’ Flags, which are supported by my experience of those paintings, and that meet the needs of her political commitment. Is it valid? I wouldn’t use that word. Validation is for visas.

  5. howard junker Says:

    i thought johns’s explanations of why he chose the flag as an image to paint were very influential and persuasive.

    but my favorite american flags are childe hassam’s

    http://blogs.princeton.edu/wri152-3/s06/jedelste/

  6. John Zarobell Says:

    It is a fascinating series of issues that Johns has raised and that clearly continue to be explored today. I have just a small pair of comments of Dominic’s and Julian’s interchange:

    Doesn’t Flag, the the Stars and Stripes itself, leave open all possible responses, not just interpretations? In other words, does not Johns enteratin the idea that the painting, as both image and representation, will be as meaningless to many of his viewers as the flag may be? You may see nationalism or citizenship while all I see is a cliche or a hoody.

    It seems to me that what the Embassy gets right is the fact that it is a representation, not of artistic choices, but of perceptual ones. What does this flag mean to you? How does it manifest itself? The State Dept. may be a manifestation of US power abroad but it only operates through the perception of American sovereignty

  7. Julian Myers Says:

    @Dom, I never said there was one right or valid interpretation of Flag paintings. Rather I asked, based on your post, whether you thought there was something interesting or “right” in the Visa office’s display of it, hoping that you might say what you think it is. I speculated above that it was used there, as 1950s American painting so often has been, to advertise a particular sort of American “openness.” Your imputation that this makes me some sort of disapproving, rubber-stamping bureaucrat is… a lovely picture…

    Johns’ flag paintings have been positioned in different ways and made to serve seemingly opposing ideological purposes. This your post demonstrates. But why does it follow that the character of the painting is its commendable undecidability? This cliché that the very best artworks suspend us in some ecstasy of ambiguity, the idea that it would be “impossible to say” what a work might mean in its ensemble of conditions – this is what I find oppressive. It is possible not only to say, but to argue, to persuade, and to agree.

    @ John, I wonder if there aren’t disciplinary differences at work here – if the curator must maintain at all costs the artwork’s “openness and possibility,” while the critic and historian must insist that works are finite and decidable.

  8. Dominic Says:

    Julian,

    I agree that there is something in this to do with the different disciplinary or institutional requirements of curators, critics and historians of art. I’m not clear what it is, but I’d like to explore that. Maybe there’s a post that either or both of us might write at some point.

    I’d say that validity doesn’t mean that only one interpretation can be valid. It does, though, imply a theory of meaning as correspondence between a statement and a pre-existing reality. I think that art historians rightly need to hold to some version of this; possibly critics too, but not necessarily. It might be that more and more curators nowadays work, instead, with a pragmatist theory of meaning: meaning as use. Rightly or wrongly, we tend to ask: what can be done with this artwork and by whom? There is still argument, persuasion, agreement and disagreement, including about what counts as misuse.

    It’s true that trying to maintain the artwork’s openness and possibility is becoming part of the curator’s job, in museums at least. In the past, curators and art historians were not so different. There’s a lot that can be said about that divergence, how it came about, and its consequences.

    You’re still going to want to know why I found the State dept’s use of Flag interesting. By being a flag, Flag invites use. By being a painting of one, it invites reflection on the uses to which the flag, and itself (both as flag and art), are put. In the Visa Section and the Ambassador’s office, it seems to be doing both at the same time.

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