White Flag by Jasper Johns, created in 1955: Addressed as a museum talk.
When I first saw White Flag I was attracted to its ugliness—its emptiness. I thought it looked like a wet saltine or an albino version of a flag. Albinos are not meant to live long…and yet here this painting stands before us fifty years after it’s creation.
Certain details about White Flag mark its age. First of all, it’s not exactly white; it’s more of a combination of off-whites and pale yellows. You’ll notice the symmetry of the cutout stars—there are only forty-eight. And the newsprint, which I’ll talk more about in a moment, has turned yellow and brown beneath the surface just like the newspaper you might find in your attic.
The reason White Flag has become an important work in the realm of modern art is because of what it stands for—nothing. And not the nothing of Dada meant to provoke outrage or disgust. Johns’ nothing is simply a detachment from familiarity. He does not attempt to imbue his works with meaning. He deliberately chooses subjects that are familiar and conventional. By painting them he takes them out of their natural habitat, so to speak, and elevates them so that those things that are “seen and not looked at” are brought back into focus for the viewer.1 So Johns’ paintings have no real meaning except their immediate recognizability, which contrasts the common assumption that White Flag exists to make some strong political statement—nope, not a one. The fact that White Flag is so empty and devoid of pigmentation allows the viewer to explore their own projections and associations with this familiar object.
As you explore the composition, you'll discover. White Flag is an encaustic. The process of encaustic was mostly abandoned in the Middle Ages. It is the application of hot, melted wax mixed with pigments and applied to a flat surface.2 Rather than applying the encaustic directly to the raw canvas (which you’ll notice is actually three separate canvases) Johns collaged the surface with newspaper.
The brushstrokes are wide, which match the enormous size of the painting, and a little wild—but equal all across the canvas giving the work a sense of movement and a lack of focal point. You can tell that the encaustic was applied to the painting upright by the vertical drippings. You can also see how quickly hot wax dries by the uneven texture—some areas are very cakey and thick while other thin areas are smooth and translucent.
In the areas where the newsprint shows through you can make out “Lexington at 89th St,” which reminds us of White Flag’s creation in New York. The newspaper is not all in one direction: some are sideways, some are upside down; nor are they all articles, some comics show through as well. The newspaper is applied in brick-like rectangles except for one incongruous strip. Once a mover came to Johns’ place and leaned against White Flag; he didn’t even see it hanging on the white brick wall because it blended right in.3
Stuck in the wax is a very small piece of what I think might be a leaf (if not, maybe construction paper). Have you all seen the movie Jurassic Park, with the insect in amber? That’s what this painting is sort of like, once he applied the wax everything has been frozen in time. And just as insects are “seen and not looked at” until trapped in something beautiful like amber and their familiarity is challenged, so to is the familiarity of the American flag challenged by Jasper Johns in his White Flag.
1Francis, Richard. Modern Master Series: Jasper Johns. New York: Abbeville Press, 1984.
2Boudaille, Georges. Jasper Johns. New York: Rizzoli, 1989.
3Jasper Johns: Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews. Comp. Christel Hollevoet. Ed. Kirk Varnedoe. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1996.