Flag, 1954-55 by Jasper Johns

Johns has said that the idea to paint this first American flag came to him in a dream. Although he began the work using enamel house paint, he soon turned to his variant of the ancient medium of encaustic wherein wax, not oil, binds pigment. He did this because he wanted a medium that dries very quickly yet keeps the brushstrokes distinct. The fast-drying medium enabled him to apply individual strokes with great textural variation, while allowing some of the underlying areas of collage to show through, dimly, enticing the viewer to look closely. As John Cage wrote of Johns' craftsmanship: "Looking closely helps, though the paint is applied so sensually there is the danger of falling in love."

This sense of "other levels" is critical to Jasper Johns' method of operation. If he does not create an images, but uses ready-made designs, images, and lettering, what does his work consist of?

Painting a flag triggered many related ideas:

Using the design of the American flag took care of a great deal for me because I didn't have to design it. So I went on to similar things like the targets - things the mind already knows. That gave me room to work on other levels."

We have a clue in further elaboration: he considers the flags and targets similar because "they're both things which are seen and not looked at, not examined, and they both have clearly defined areas which could be measured and transferred to canvas."

There are two ideas here: first, the notion of an image which is seen and not seen, because of its familiarity. And second, the idea of an image which can be precisely measured and put onto canvas - an object identified by its fixed proportions. An accurately reproduced flag is familiar, and therefore "not looked at." But by painting the image in encaustic, with its heavily worked, encrusted surface, Johns' flag image becomes familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, and therefore draws our notice.

It also provokes more abstract considerations. Once concerns the idea of painting a flag. In the 1950s that act seemed to many observers an absurdity: an American flag might be many things, but it was certainly not art. Yet Johns presented a carefully worked, elegantly executed painting. Such a painting was surely art - or was it? That became a problem for the viewer, alone. Johns is gone; he has already made the painting, he has already presented the problem. The viewer is left to resolve it as best he can.