If you know just one work by Jasper Johns—arguably the greatest, most influential American artist still alive today—it’s almost certainly his iconic painting Flag, from 1954. At first glance, there’s nothing particularly special or interesting about it, except perhaps that it excludes the stars for Alaska and Hawaii, which hadn’t yet achieved statehood. The work’s dimensions are modest (slightly larger than three by five feet), and its materials are crude (waxy encaustic, oil paint, newspaper collage, and fabric mounted on three separate plywood panels). Apart from smudges, drips, and the odd newspaper line or dated advertisement, closer inspection doesn’t reveal much more. It’s pretty much like every other American flag you’ve ever seen.
But context, as they say, is everything, and Flag bears an extensive mythology. It was in a dream, the twenty-four-year-old Johns once claimed, that his subconscious had conceived the work; he merely went out, scraped together materials, and assembled it the next day. Whatever its origins, Flag took the New York art world by storm. Critics interpreted Johns’s cool, deadpan image as a provocation and a revelation. Flag wasn’t just a wry rebuke of abstract expressionism, with its gestural, improvised brush strokes and its cult of self-assertion. By blurring the line between sign and signified, by collapsing symbol and symbolized, the piece had called into question the representational nature of art itself.
And the rest, as they also say, is history. Johns became an instant celebrity, running in the same circles as avant-garde composer John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and painter Robert Rauschenberg, Johns’s mentor and one-time lover. Johns’s place in the history of modern American art has been secure ever since. Movements like Pop Art, Conceptualism, and Neo-Dada would be unthinkable without his staid sculptures of beer cans and flashlights, or his serial paintings of flags, numbers, letters, maps, and targets, those “things the mind already knows.” But as two new shows at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum in New York powerfully demonstrate, it would be a mistake to limit Johns to his past achievements. He’s been evolving for seven decades, and he continues to create original, thought-provoking art even today, at the age of ninety-one.