Flags I

Stars, stripes and dollars

Michael Prodger on the artists who make huge sums for painting the US flag

On Art

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


As the American election played itself out, the British Museum kept its eye on the Stars and Stripes too. In its case it was not the Biden-Trump endgame but a picture by the venerable American painter Jasper Johns. 

Flags I, (above) from 1973, is one of the most technically challenging of all his prints and had just been given to the museum by the New York-based collectors Johanna and Leslie Garfield. The print is part of an edition of 65 and shows both sides of the American flag — one side glossy, the other matt. In 2016, a version sold in New York for $1.6 million. The gift, then, is nothing if not munificent.

Johns, now 90, first started depicting Old Glory in 1954 after he saw himself painting the banner in a dream, or so he claimed. The image had no political symbolism but was, he said, something so familiar that the mind already knows it — he turned other ubiquitous symbols such as maps of the US, numbers, and gun targets into paintings too. Using such a hackneyed image saved him time, he reckoned, because he didn’t have to come up with a design. If people wanted to load it with associations, that was up to them.

Johns went on to play with the motif for many years, producing paintings of the whole flag, of details, some in series, some all in white, as well as numerous prints. He would vary their surfaces by using thick paint, encaustic (pigment mixed with wax) or enamel. Some had collages of newspaper showing through just beneath the paint layer or strips of fabric embedded. 

It has proved to be his signature theme: in 1980 the Whitney Museum paid $1 million for Three Flags (1958), at that point the highest price ever paid for the work of a living artist, while in 2010, another iteration, Flag (1958), was sold privately to the hedge-funder Steven Cohen for a reported $110 million (then £73 million). Johns remains the only living artist to have topped the $100 million mark.

It was though Johns’s pictures, however neutral, that alerted other artists to the potency of the flag

The most celebrated image of the American flag is Emanuel Leutze’s melodramatically heroic image of Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, painted 55 years after the event. It shows an earlier version of the Stars and Stripes known as the Betsy Ross Flag after the Philadelphia seamstress who, according to legend, designed it, arranging in a circle the 13 stars representing the colonies that fought in the war for independence.

It was not until 1818 that Congress passed the last of several Flag Resolutions, fixing the number of stripes at 13 and the number of stars as always matching the number of states, with any new stars added on 4 July. From 1777 to 1960 there were 27 versions of the US banner. 

It was though Johns’s pictures, however neutral, that alerted other artists to the potency of the flag and led to a flurry of subsequent imagery. In 1979-80, for example, Jean-Michel
Basquiat made Untitled (Flag), a deconstructed and crumpled variant in which the stars have been transposed on to the stripes but start falling off like mutineers walking off the plank. 

In 1990 David Hammons made a real-life African American Flag in which he swapped the red, white and blue for the black, red, and green of Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African Flag first seen in 1920. One version was sold in 2017 for more than $2 million and, for some reason, the Black Lives Matter movement has missed an obvious trick by not adopting it. And in 2018 Robert Longo produced Untitled (Torn Flag), a none too subtle comment on the state of the nation showing a shredded and peeling Stars and Stripes.

The most controversial version, however, came in 1988, when an artist called Dread Scott laid an American flag on the floor of the Art Institute of Chicago and asked visitors to stand on it while writing in a book mounted above it their response to the question “What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?”. 

The ensuing row was enough to draw in the then President, George Bush Sr (“A disgrace . . . I don’t approve of it at all”), and provoke the Senate to vote 97-0 into passing a law against “displaying the flag of the United States on the floor or ground”. During the debate Bob Dole came up with the line: “I don’t know much about art but I know desecration when I see it.” Scott enjoyed the furore and later went on to a further provocation by burning the flag on the steps of the US Capitol.

What most of the more recent artists haven’t picked up on is that Johns’s somewhat bland explanation of the genesis of his flag motif was more than a little disingenuous. Born in Georgia and raised largely in South Carolina, he came from Confederacy lands. In 1990 he told an interviewer a rather different story to his dream-sequence explanation. “In Savannah, Georgia, in a park, there is a statue of Sergeant William Jasper,” he said. “Once I was walking through this park with my father, and he said that we were named for him. Whether or not that is in fact true or not, I don’t know. Sergeant Jasper lost his life raising the American flag over a fort.” 

Johns may have made his first flag as a way of establishing himself as a painter free of debts to other artists — and especially the Abstract Expressionists who then ruled in New York — but in such subliminal influences as Confederate statues and forts he inadvertently predicted some of the clickbait terms co-opted by the serial Stars and Stripes-botherer Donald Trump.

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