Jasper Johns Flags Making Headlines For Six Decades

by  & Robert Grunder

Jasper Johns, considered one of the most important living post war and contemporary artists, has made International headlines since the 1950's when The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) acquired the artist’s breakthrough American Flag painting, a gift of Philip Johnson in honor of Alfred H. Barr, Jr.

When Jasper Johns created Flag, the dominant American art was Abstract Expressionism, which enthroned the bold, spontaneous use of gesture and color to evoke emotional response. Johns, though, had begun to paint common, instantly recognizable symbols—flags, targets, numbers, letters.
Breaking with the idea of the canvas as a field for abstract personal expression, Jasper Johns painted things the mind already knows. Using the American flag, Johns said, took care of a great deal for me because I didn't have to design it; that gave him the freedom to focus his attention on making paintings.
On May 11 and 12, 2010, Christie's New York, will offer Jasper Johns’ Flag, 1960-1966, painting from the collection of Michael Crichton, and its eventual multi-million dollar auction result will, without doubt, make headlines.
At minimum, the result will not only establish a new auction record for all paintings created by Jasper Johns, but may also establish an all time record for a work of art sold at public auction. Steven A. Cohen recently paid $110 million for the Jasper Johns Flag, 1958, an iconic red, white and blue flag painting created with 48 stars.
$110 million Jasper Johns Flag bought by Steven A. Cohen
Steven A. Cohen purchased Flag, 1958, the iconic Jasper Johns masterpiece from the collection of Jean-Christophe Castelli, who inherited the painting, from his father, Leo Castelli, the legendary art dealer who passed in 1999. Prior to its recent purchase, Flag, 1958, had been on extended loan to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Jasper Johns Flag, 1960-1966, an encaustic and collage on canvas, from the Estate of Michael Crichton, is certain to establish new public auction record.

The odds are in its favor!

Jasper Johns Flag Painting Sold by Estate of Michael Crichton

Jasper Johns Flag, 1960-1966, has never been offered for sale. The painting has an extraordinary provenance. Consigned from the estate of Michael Crichton, the best-selling film maker and author of Jurassic Park, who also authored the Jasper Johns Whitney Museum exhibition catalogue, Mr. Crichton acquired Flag, 1960-1966, over thirty years ago, directly from the artist.
Only two feet wide, Flag,1960-1966 has the power of a Jasper Johns painting many times larger. Rarely exhibited, the last time was 18 years ago at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, the Crichton Jasper Johns' painting is destined to create International headlines, that could take years to surpass. Over the last six decades, Jasper Johns has created approximately 30 paintings, 14 prints and 50 drawings and works on paper using the iconic flag image in different ways, shapes, colors, sizes, forms and colors.
In addition to red-white-blue American flags, Jasper Johns has created:
  • Flags in green and orange
  • Flags in shades of gray and black
  • All white flags
Each is linked by the Artist's use of the flag image, and all were created not because of the Artist's patriotism, but because the flag is a part of the things the mind already knows, similar to the Artist's Targets, Alphabets, Numbers and Maps.
Like the artist’s Targets, Maps, Numbers, and Alphabets, the American flag fulfilled Jasper John's interest in depicting "things the mind already knows”, pre-determined, recognizable images that allowed the artist to focus on surface and execution rather than subject matter. "It has been suggested that the American flag in Jasper Johns work is an autobiographical reference."
Incorporated in Jasper Johns' The Seasons, 1987, the red-white-blue flag seems inescapably to refer to his Johns' art. Over the last six decades, Jasper Johns has made a  point keeping his iconic flag image fresh as he keeps changing the spacial relationships of the flag.
An analysis of Jasper Johns art with flags shows that the artist has created many single flag paintings, like the Crichton and Cohen flags. Jasper Johns has created the following artworks with flags:
  • Flags within larger fields
  • Multiple flags
  • Backward flags
  • Vertical flags
  • Superimposed flags
  • Hand colored flags modified over prints
  • Unique color trial proof flags

In 2000 and 2001, Jasper Johns created two linocuts using the red-white-blue flag as a backdrop to Johns' tribute to the Royal Silhouette Vase, manufactured in Germany in 1977 for the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth. The Royal Silhouette Vase features profiles of Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth formed in the negative space, creating a type of Rubin’s figure, named for the Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin.

Royal Silhouette Vase
Royal Silhouette Vase

In Jasper Johns' Untitled, (Flag & Vase), 2000, the red-white-blue American flag comprises the entire composition; Johns positions the flag vertically with the stars in the upper left corner and in a nod to the Rubin figure from the Royal Silhouette Vase, presents a double profile of the prince on the left side—one in the red and white stripes of the flag, and the other in brown and black diagonals—and the profile of the Queen in red and white stripes on the right

Jasper Johns Untitled 2000 offered by Joseph K. Levene Fine Art, Ltd.
Jasper Johns Untitled (Flag & Vase), 2000, was published by the Artist's Low Row Studio, in an edition of only 38 signed and numbered impressions with 6 Artist's Proofs. Other examples of Jasper Johns Untitled (Flag & Vase), 2000, are included in the collections of these prestigious museums:
A similar tribute appears in Jasper Johns Flag & Vase, 2001, a smaller linocut, published in a signed and numbered edition of 20 plus 7 Artist Proofs by the Artist's Low Road Studio, also featuring the red-white-blue American flag along with a similar nod to the Rubin figure captured in the The Royal Silhouette Vase.

Although a unique Jasper Johns painting or work on paper routinely commands a multi-million dollar price tag, that is not the case for most Jasper Johns prints. A majority of Jasper Johns signed and numbered limited edition prints are especially good value; Jasper Johns has created an extraordinary body of more than 400 different limited editions, featuring signed and numbered limited edition prints that are coveted internationally by museums and private collectors.
Of the 14 prints featuring the American flag, the red-white-blue flag is a dominant image in only five Jasper Johns prints, including: Flags I, 1973, the color screenprint, published by Simca; Two Flags (Whitney Anniversary), 1980, a color lithograph, published by Gemini; and three linocuts, Flag On Orange, 1998,  Untitled, (Flag & Vase), 2000 and Flag and Vase, 2001, the latter three published by Low Road Studio.

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