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An Audio Guide for the White House Makeover/Takeover Jasper Johns Flags Exhibit

Three Flags, 1958
Encaustic on canvas (three panels), 30 ⅞ × 45 ¾ in. overall

ISSUE:  Summer 2021

Welcome, Friend. Thanks for selecting this handheld audio guide for the White House Jasper Johns Flags Exhibit. This exhibition is underwritten by citizens still desperate for change, enough that they let the Executive Residence be reappropriated by a riot of artists. A selection of Johns’s celebrated American flag paintings hang throughout rooms that have been transformed into dynamic art installations. Visitors are presented with colorful interactive choices throughout the tour. WARNING: Before entering you must attach a red button to your kisser, a white button to your whiffer, and a blue button to your third eye. Should you enjoy this audio guide, audio for the new Thomas Jefferson Monticello Mark Rothko Exhibit is also highly recommended.

What follows is adapted from the catalogue  Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror, published in conjunction with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Whitney Museum of American Art’s Jasper Johns retrospective (September 29, 2021 – February 13, 2022) in Philadelphia and New York. You can listen to Terrance Hayes’s audio tour by visiting All artwork by Jasper Johns © 2021 Jasper Johns/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Jasper Johns’s 1958 Flag in encaustic on canvas is displayed on T-shirts stacked on a wobbly table in the White House Lobby. As you can see, an urban proto-Pop artist has converted this space into a gift shop. The actual Jasper Johns painting is displayed behind the check-out counter. Note how much this sensational painting favors the quixotic texture of an actual flag. Postcards as well as doormats, tablemats, bathmats, loincloths, bobby socks, baby bibs, and Bibles displaying Johns’s flag are available for purchase. Framed replicas ship within forty-eight hours. Should you have the opportunity, be sure to visit the gift shop of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, where the innovative quilts of Faith Ringgold hang beside Sam Gilliam’s draping lyrical unstretched canvases. Visit Ernest Hemingway’s historic Key West home where packs of six-toed cats tiptoe below the soup cans of Andy Warhol.


Jasper Johns’s 1969 Two Flags in graphite pencil and collage on paper is displayed in the Roosevelt Room. Cleared of its officious officials and official décor, the space has been rebuilt into a teleportation chamber by a brilliant ethnographic graphic artist. Two adjacent doorways are covered by Johns’s two large American flags—one dark, the other light. Stepping through the shaded flag doorway to the left, you are transported to the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, where the ghosts of schoolchildren cut countless stars from newspaper. Stepping through the doorway behind the flag to the right, you are transported to the mouth of a manhole in the middle of the Oval Office. Please press the red button if you’d like to be transported to the Rose Garden from here. Press the white button if you’d like to be transported to the Lincoln Bathroom. Press the blue button to be transported to the Secret Attic.


Jasper Johns’s 1957 Flag in pastel, graphite, and collage on gesso board is displayed in a closet of the Cabinet Room. Fifty stars float above dusky delphiniums fenced-in by thirteen rows of blood and snow. Please wait until a member of the museum’s staff directs you to enter. The distinguished environmental artist behind this installation instructs you to pull a red lever to transform the closet into a military coffin draped in the flag; a white lever to make the closet a phone booth and the flag Superman’s cape; and a blue lever to stand inside the mouth of a blue whale. Please press the red button if you know what this painting says about fear. Press the white button if you know what it says about the cost of living. Please press the blue button if what it says changes the longer you look at it.


Jasper Johns’s 1958 Flag in graphite pencil and graphite wash on tracing paper hangs in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room. The room is filled with the mechanical contraptions of a master animatronic portrait artist. On the left side of the space, a pair of robot boys-in-blue white-knuckle a red-handed robot Izola Curry, the Black woman who stabbed MLK at a 1958 book signing. In the room’s right corner, you may take a selfie with a leaking robot MLK. Blood stains the ivory handle of Curry’s letter opener and King’s dark-blue suit. Do spend a few minutes with your nose close to Johns’s masterpiece. One critic remarked that the marks evoke van Gogh’s handwriting in his letters from the Saint-Rémy asylum. Another compared them to the slashing shorthand of Cy Twombly.


Jasper Johns’s 1959 Untitled (Envelope) in watercolor and graphite pencil on a paper envelope can be viewed at a desk in the Palm Room. A pair of cartoon flags glows amid nonchalant scribbles and postal aftermaths, underscoring Johns’s genius even when doodling or reading mail. Press the red button for the envelope’s contents. Or sit at the desk for a palm reading by the acclaimed topiary artist who curated this space. Press the white button if you would prefer to write a love letter to the eagle in Robert Rauschenberg’s Canyon. Press the blue button to make the room a nineteenth-century glass conservatory overgrown with palm trees. For an actual outdoor experience, consider the Georgia O’Keeffe Retrospective at Ghost Ranch, where the audio guide leads you on a hiking scavenger tour of paintings displayed across all twenty-one thousand acres of the ranch surrounding O’Keeffe’s New Mexico home.


Jasper Johns’s 1960 Flag in plaster was hung at the top of the Grand Staircase by an unseen guerilla artist. Its texture recalls the interior of a skull. The painting’s texture recalls the feel of an orthopedic Minerva cast. It must be viewed quickly, as a line often forms down the stairs. The stairs are painted a somber crimson that recalls both Kennedy assassinations. Press the red button if you think Johns’s flag covers bullet holes. The painting leaves the impression of stucco, a wrinkled plaster of paris. A dozen sketchy self-portraits drawn by the last president to inhabit the residence hang along the stairs. Press the white button to hear a brief podcast on the complete history of plaster. Press the blue button for the trapdoor at the top of the staircase.


Jasper Johns’s 1957 Flag in oil on paper mounted on cardboard is displayed in the White House basement. A conceptual martial artist celebrated for his prison installations has converted the space into a midcentury suburban man cave. The painting is displayed on a wood-panel wall above a black-and-white floor-model television. A news broadcast of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus marshalling truckloads of soldiers to keep nine Black kids out of high school loops on screen. Little rocks and cotton balls cover the floor. Critics debate whether the encaustic technique is intended to stir questions of America’s caustic behaviors. Should you have the opportunity, be sure to visit our exhibitions of American women artists in historic homes owned by women. Plans are in development to show Agnes Martin in the childhood homes of Amelia Earhart in Kansas and Judy Chicago in Chicago.


Jasper Johns’s 1957 Flag on Orange Field in fluorescent paint, watercolor, pastel, and graphite pencil on paper is displayed in the Situation Room, where tiny paintbrushes and large buckets of orange paint have been placed for use. Plastic ponchos are available from the docent. Note the arrangement of boom boxes. When you hear the music—a composition by a Grammy-winning ambient-sound artist—you can begin painting your designated portion of the room. Smells of rubber and road, exhaust machines, gasoline, and metal condition the climate. A woman covered in silver stands on a soapbox repeatedly whispering, “Orange, you tired!” and “Aren’t you tired?” into a megaphone. After your portion of wall is painted, the exact orange of the Johns painting or the fumes may cause you to faint, vomit, or hallucinate. Press the red button to paint the town red. Press the white button to paint picket fences. Or press blue to paint yourself into a corner. 


Jasper Johns’s Flag, cast in silver and worked on from 1960 to 1987, is displayed on the second floor in the Lincoln Bedroom, where a minimalist spoken-word artist dressed as a bearded female Lincoln impersonator recites an erasure of the Gettysburg Address. The central feature of the Lincoln Bedroom remains the Lincoln bed, a nearly eight-foot by six-foot rosewood Victorian-style dream machine, except its enormous headboard displays Johns’s flag of silver. It brings to mind the aerial map of an uproar. It is possible that Johns worked during dry spells and bouts of insomnia. It is certain he worked on this flag for as long as it took Jean-Michel Basquiat to live and die. Visit the Basquiat exhibit at Graceland if you have the opportunity.


Jasper Johns’s 1958 Three Flags in encaustic on three panels hangs in the White House family elevator. Its three tiers evoke the floors of the building. Only one rider is allowed on the elevator at a time. Lovers, families, tour groups, and field trippers who arrive together must wander the red and blue floors of the White House alone after this room. Your audio guide is here to help you get lost. Please press the red button if you’d like to rise up, press the white button if you’d like to stay put, or press the blue button if you’d like to back down. Please press the red button to back up, press the white button to stay the course, or press the blue button to break down. Please press the red button to wake up, press the white button to stay the execution, press the blue button to bear down. Study Three Flags during your elevator ride. You are on your own when the doors part. 

Thank you, Friend, for listening to this Audio Guide for the White House Jasper Johns Flags Exhibit.


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