According to Jasper Johns, his iconic 1955 painting Flag came to him in a dream (a rather literal one) in which he saw himself painting an American flag. The next morning, he went out and bought the materials to do it. Like many great works of art, Flag is many things to many people. It is also deceptively straightforward—its disruptive power, in fact, lies both in its directness (Johns painted Flag at the height of abstract expressionism) and in the implications of his technique. Johns worked partly in encaustic, using hot wax and pigment layered over strips of newspaper and fabric. As art historian Isabelle Loring Wallace has written, encaustic was a largely abandoned technique, an anachronistic signature “most closely associated with a group of remarkable Egyptian funerary portraits. Affixed to the deceased’s mummy prior to burial, these highly realistic portraits from the second century were designed to preserve the image of the dead, just as Flag…preserved aspects of contemporary American painting at the very moment when Johns was laying to rest various aspects of this moribund tradition.”
So, too, were old notions of American symbology put to rest, not unlike how the narrative is once again being ripped apart and reassembled, with more sober truths replacing romantic mythologies. Predictably, there’s been some backlash against upending gilded notions of American exceptionalism. The flag has been a strange litmus for all this, a way to measure the rift—from President Trump’s hijacking the flag to make it a calling card for a vilely narrow (and dangerous) political vision, to more radical variations of the Stars and Stripes as a way to broadcast allegiances, whether they be to Black Lives Matter or to law enforcement (which many see as opposition to Black Lives Matter) or to the LGBTQIA community. There has even been a reclamation of Old Glory in a post-Trump context simply as a way to “take the flag back.”
The Biden administration has redrawn the arc of progress, the conversations about rectifying racial and economic inequity have evolved, but fundamental, systemic change is still a long way off. And regardless of what the administration’s vision is, the baseline for political dialogue is still fractured, and who knows what to expect when it comes to the “healing” that was on the agenda this past spring. In a way, as yet another July 4 comes and goes, our most venerated national symbol is more Rorschach than ever.
Johns went on to create some forty variations of Flag over the next several decades, some of which are presented in this issue in a portfolio that highlights a forthcoming exhibition shared between the Whitney and Philadelphia art museums. Complementing Johns’s work is text by poet Terrance Hayes, who has composed a script for a hypothetical, satirical audio tour, imagined in a time when the White House has been repurposed for a kind of pop-art show. Hayes composed the text quite a while ago, in 2020, for an exhibition that was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Ironically, though the circumstances are considerably different, the concerns remain the same, which speaks to the kind of endurance that true social and political justice requires—a truth irrespective of whichever party holds the White House.
Johns’s various approaches to the flag exemplify his larger tactic, which is to take “things the mind already knows” and offer them up in ways that provoke new forms of attention, or even re-evaluation. This isn’t so far off from journalism’s aim—a certain kind of journalism, anyway—in which a familiar headline is peeled back to allow for a subtler, more nuanced understanding of the human experience to emerge in a way that challenges what readers thought they already knew.
But why this commitment to a single theme? For me, Johns’s consistency resonates with another portfolio in this issue by painter Elise Engler, of her daily visual diary of the morning’s headlines—nearly two thousand drawings between 2015 and 2021, a mandalic dedication to the American narrative during one of its most tumultuous chapters. In both artists, you can’t help but observe a certain devotion to seeing an idea through, the vision and the grind tangled together. This close to Independence Day, the American experiment itself comes to mind: that idea of a vision and its inevitable revision, again and again, grinding it out, reconciling the story we intended with the story of what is, and winding toward a story worthy of deeper consideration.