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A House Divided American Art since 1955

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Jasper Johns's Flag

America's military misadventures have taught us, if nothing else, that the United States flag, as both sign and image, has staying power. It is not neutral. It provokes. Its display both transcends and summons party politics; it invokes the violence of history but still claims to survive the worst that history can do. Hence to represent the flag is to convey the ambiguous powers of the nation-state. What it means depends on how and where it appears. Does the Stars and Stripes mock its subjects? Veil them? Erase them? The flag did all this and more in The Americans, which Robert Frank published in 1955-56, the book in which, Jack Kerouac wrote, the "EVERYTHING-ness" of America appears-an everythingness based on difference as much as inclusion, as Frank well knew.

To image the flag is inevitably to open the question that lies at the core of this chapter, as well as others in this volume: What is the individual's ongoing relation-how does she belong-to the national culture she may serve or criticize, but which has helped shape her life and thought? This is the question embodied by Jasper Johns's Flag. It has never been more relevant than in the new millennium-a political moment that is the backdrop to the themes of this book.

Why study Flag? I made the choice carefully. I guess that is the best word, though polemically also comes to mind. The decision arose, not from any absence of earlier studies, or from any long-standing allegiance to Johns as an artist, but from his flags, which seemed to give access to exactly the questions that any present-day citizen ought to have on her mind. As so often, the key issues engage politics while also defining an art form, painting. They do so directly, as Johns's first Flag, laboriously manufactured in 1954-55, aimed to declare. To be even more specific, I am concerned with the coming together, in a single image, of politics and painting: Flag provides an immediate and local instantiation of both terms. It also presses home the question of art's role in what we often too blandly term context: at issue is the national and political culture to which art belongs.

Much of my account depends on getting in place at least a bare-bones description of this object-how it looks and was made. The process was elaborate. By now it has been carefully inventoried by others, especially Fred Orton, whose findings I have relied on but also been able to expand. Here is what Johns did: using a bedsheet as backing and pencil marks as guidelines, he built up the familiar pattern using small pieces of cloth and newsprint he had torn or cut into bits. We know from a photograph taken by Robert Rauschenberg that at least in the field of stars, the process obscured an initial layer of drawing: sub-cubist geometries that at one point, whether accidentally or otherwise, came together to suggest the cheek, jaw, and mouth of a glamorous female face-the sort of visage de Kooning saw as epitomizing the seductions of Woman. Yet all this was soon enough covered by bits of fabric or paper that were dipped dangerously in hot wax-blue, white, or red-and pressed into place in the penciled scaffolding of lines. Rauschenberg's photo records the tins and tubs of Johns's homemade apparatus, as well as the requisite wax; the process seems so makeshift that Johns's comment in the mid-1960s that "it's sort of in bad shape; it tends to fall to pieces" makes perfect sense. Sometimes the printed snippets were obscured by the wax or the layering, but at many places they can still be read by the naked eye: ads, cartoons, headlines. The familiar press repertoire is sampled, with each utterly ordinary fragment-real estate promotions; the help-wanteds; stock reports; mentions of the Middle East and the State Department; advice from a "Famous Hollywood Figure Telling You How to Reduce"-speaking to and of the texture of everyday life: Kerouac's "everythingness" in metonymic form. There is even a recipe, not for apple pie, granted, but for applesauce, which, as a signal of comfortable normalcy, can certainly serve as second best. The result is that time and place seem both present and muted: each scrap has its own message yet also stands in for its origin elsewhere, at another quite ordinary moment and site.

It bears repeating that not all of this is easily or directly legible, for the waxy coating means the scraps lie beneath the actual surface of the image. And even though the snippets are physically layered, they are also handled as oddly disembodied and conformist bits of color: they stick to the drawn guidelines, like dogs come to heel. In fact, just as a fabric flag is stitched together from separate pieces, likewise Johns's red and white stripes, and the stars in their blue canton, are fabricated as separable elements-a procedure also insisting loyally on the "flagness" or "flaglikeness" of the painting itself. Yet the wax, newsprint, and bedsheet all say otherwise: though new to Johns, they have their origins deep in avant-garde painting and making, from cubism on. Which is to say that the many visible touches of brush and palette knife evidence process, just as the submerged paper snippets are what in another context-in either cubism or dada-would be called collage. This term seems to fit no better than "painting," even though the surface is repeatedly marked and inflected by both brush and knife. Each touch, whether direct or delicate (Johns's surfaces were promptly credited with "sensuous presence"), is preserved, even memorialized, in quasi-funereal wax: its main advantage, Johns said, was that though starting out molten and dripping, it dries fast and hard.

Much of what I have said so far summarizes what has interested other critics in Flag: its surface, dispersed but unified, patently-and rather inventively-handmade, though fitting a fixed pattern borrowed for the job. The advantage of the flag, said Johns, was that it offered a design that could be easily measured and transferred; the claim belongs to his general refusal of the semblance of invention or originality, not least as these were conveyed, according to conventional wisdom, by the abstract expressionist trademark: a spontaneous stroke of the brush. Flag was made, not in the wake of abstract expressionism but directly in its midst; it constitutes a refusal of invention for convention-this is clear. Yet Johns's declaration, which presents the flag as a simple convenience, is not convincing, for it runs oddly counter to the artist's other claim about Flag: that painting it was a random idea, which came to him in a dream. That story places Flag's beginnings in Johns's unconscious, a far-from-random repository, and thus puts the flag there too. Is there something personal in Flag? For now, simply note that this whole string of contradictions, as it runs from the look of the painting back to its origin story, leads to what seems the greatest contradiction of all, on which most critics dwell. Built into the work is a tension between its presence as an image and its role as a sign. A dilemma results: "Is it a flag or is it a painting?" Alan Solomon was the first to put the question, as far back as 1964. The answer being considered undecidable then and since, Flag continues to be seen as both a flag and a painting, and there matters stand. Flag, so Orton has concluded in Figuring Jasper Johns, "works in the space of difference.... Neither positive nor negative, but both positive and negative, Flag cannot be resolved."

But what happens now, more than a decade after Orton published his landmark book? Should we retreat to safer ground, asking if this is a modernist painting or a postmodern one? After all, invention and individuality ultimately do cede to a sign that could hardly look less original: the postmodernists get this right. Yet even so, Johns's borrowings have never undermined the general confidence in his originality. If the standard question, flag or painting, points efficiently to the unsteadiness of Flag's double identity, that unsteadiness was never so consequential as to give rise to mistakes. The artist's very first critics seemed to know exactly what to do when face to face with the work. The rules are clear inside the art world's galleries, as Robert Rosenblum grasped at once in responding to the painter's first solo show: "Johns is dedicated to images which outside picture galleries evoke non-aesthetic reactions. There is the American flag, which one respects or salutes; targets, which one aims at and hopes to hit; numbers, which one counts with: and letters, which one uses to make words to be read. To see these commonplaces faithfully reproduced in sizes from large to small is disconcerting enough, but not so bewildering as the visual and intellectual impact they carry." And so, with Rosenblum's immediate understanding of Flag as a painting-able to generate "visual and intellectual impact" from nonaesthetic sources-the critical game begins. It places viewers inside a picture gallery, where aesthetic rules apply. No counting, reading, reverence, or violence, please: no respect, no salutes. What occurs instead is the first mention of the "sensuous presence" of Johns's paintings, with their "elegant craftsmanship" and "fine nuance." John's artistic reputation starts here, as Rosenblum resonates in response to the "added poignancy of a beloved handmade transcription of unloved, machine-made images." This is not the last time a critic will say there is love in the look of Johns's paintings. Nor is such a comment surprising, given the waxen warmth of their much-touched surfaces. Rosenblum knows what he is looking at and how to respond.

By now, however, many art critics have become accustomed to thinking of the arts as locked in a life-or-death struggle with at least some constitutive aspects of the system for which the flag of Flag has come to stand-the system of the commodity and its objects, technology and rationalization, and all that follows from them. In an essay on contemporary aesthetics, the literary critic J. M. Bernstein has spelled out the oppressive list: "the abstractions of exchange value, technique, means-ends rationality, functionality, structural domination." For Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, this same list is more or less the text of Johns's paintings in the 1950s. It is both what they enact and what they are about: "Johns's painting committed itself (in the way that one is 'committed' to an institution) to the tautological rigor of mapping the canvas"-with a matrix or template-"which hermetically enacted the order of total administration in which any hope for the renaturalization of gesture, chroma, and composition had been lost altogether."

Most readers of these pages can doubtless look at Flag and grasp what Buchloh means by the "hermetic enactment of total administration." His phrase names a visual performance, a literal and constitutive visual effect: painting and image are physically coextensive, sign and surface are one-with their unity miming the totalization of power itself. The question of the picture's hope or hopelessness about the future of individualized or personalized painting (what Buchloh terms the "renaturalization of gesture" and so on) is another matter; for what Buchloh sees as irretrievably lost in Johns's painting is precisely what Rosenblum thinks he has found. Buchloh's renaturalization is Rosenblum's poignancy; where Buchloh speaks of gesture, chroma, and composition as utterly artificial, Rosenblum finds "elegant craftsmanship" and painterly nuance-terms suggesting that, Buchloh notwithstanding, "renaturalization" was going on apace.

Yet Buchloh says something else in these dour remarks. His parenthetical phrase-his odd, perhaps unconscious declaration that "Johns's painting committed itself (in the way one is 'committed' to an institution)"-is enough to stop the reader in her tracks. Then come his claims about "tautological rigor," "the order of total administration" and the rest. How is one committed to an institution? Which institution is in question: painting, the asylum, or the nation-state? In which does the lunacy lie? Does painting offer refuge, or the straitjacket? Is one's commitment madness? Is it involuntary? Buchloh's phrase is so provocative because it conflates painting and person, Flag and Johns: the former actively accomplishes what the latter passively engages; we are left wondering about the intentions of paintings and painters, and how to tell them apart.

Here is what should be done with Buchloh's parenthesis: it needs a new position, right at center stage. There it may be able to perform some of the passions and worries that Johns's Flag brings on. We have gotten the key question wrong: what matters is not whether the work is a flag or a painting, but why the two-the symbol and the practice-have been so intimately married, till death do them part. These are the proper questions: Why turn the American flag into a painting? And vice versa: Why turn a painting into an American flag? This rephrasing not only asks for an explanation but also insists that Johns's flag, as a painting, takes a posture toward the nation: it presents itself as the very emblem of a national school-the "American-type" painting that Greenberg, for one, was beginning to promote. As a flag, however, it offers a demonstration of how that sign can behave toward whatever-whomever-it governs or rules. On the one hand, Johns's painting opens itself up to the flag utterly, abjectly; on the other, the flag can be said to dominate, physically saturate, the image field. Its colors stain the traces of the daily papers; they make up a surface that may well be sensitive, even impressionable, yet is also waxy and artificial, like a false flower or a tricked-out corpse. Johns's painting, in other words, yields to complete identification with its chosen symbol, but also produces a patently artificial proxy for it, an "aesthetic" substitute achieved with the most technically marginal means.

As always, the means are what count. Johns's painting is clearly assertive: what does it say? Again, why turn the American flag into a painting? Why turn a painting into an American flag? For Johns, the impulse was not a passing fancy, a short-lived whim. On the contrary, he painted the flag insistently, repetitively, year after year: more than ninety times in all. Yet the two other versions of 1955 do most to bring Flag itself, the catalyst of the series, clearly into view. The first is Flag above White with Collage. Here encaustic again transforms snippets of newsprint into stars and stripes. Now, though, two elements are added: the white field or ground that supports the flag, and the found strip of I.D. photographs of an unknown white man visible in the stripes along the right edge. Unlike Flag's half-buried snippets, its presence is overt. As Johns said of it, "that's a very deliberate kind of thing clearly left to be shown, not automatically used, but used consciously." If we ask what Johns was consciously using-what is represented by the field and the photographs-the answer, as so often with Johns, takes shockingly literal form: whiteness and male identity. We might even take the unknown man in the photo strip as a figure of the citizen, its quasi-ideal.

The other painting of 1955 is the colossal White Flag; it is double the size of Flag. What makes this version different? The title telegraphs what is new. Now being white defines every step in the logic of the image, starting with its surface and moving out from there. Now the noisy layer of newsprint must be hidden, safely plastered flat. Now there is no avoiding the work's assertive ambitions, as if whiteness demands an increase in scale. And now there is a decided loosening in the handling of the newly blanched surface, with the result that at crucial junctures in the image-the points of several stars, for example-drips occur, as if the design itself is leaking or bleeding or weeps. Where a national whiteness is concerned, not least for a state in the throes of an endlessly belated racial integration, all these terms might seem able to assert their claims.

Both these images lead directly back to Flag. What no one has so far noticed about this much-studied painting is the origin or purpose of ten raised white letters that curve along the lower right arm of the bottom left star. Large enough to read, they spell out "ITED STATES." What matters even more is how they were made, and what the blue wax surrounding them conceals. They are raised letters on an embossed government seal lying just beneath the surface, and that seal seems to sit on a passport page of an unknown white male, who, we learn, is married and weighs 182 pounds. He too is a citizen-the citizen, duly inscribed and certified-a national ambassador authorized to leave the country, and then return "home." His presence seems essential to Flag. So is his place in the fabric of the painting-precisely where, in this national image, we would expect him to be.

Of course Johns did not-could not-stop painting the flag; with each new version its rhetorical complexity becomes clearer. In Three Flags (1958), the flag appears in triplicate, with the reiteration built up in three dimensions until it takes on the force of an expansive hallucination, an image replicating or echoing itself. This is the version that Hans Haacke parodied in 2000, in a piece addressing the hard-fisted response of the Giuliani administration to the staging of the Sensation show by the Brooklyn Museum. Haacke responded with an installation dubbed Sanitation, built around the assertive presence of the flag. His choice of this Johns to emulate gets precisely right what is visionary or dreamlike-even nightmarish-about the triplicate image: peel away one flag, and there's an even bigger one behind. But to speak of the visionary leads directly to another flag in the sequence. In 1964, while in Japan, Johns imagined, and then in 1965 painted, a flag of black, green, and orange, with the thought that rather than attack or undo the nation's banner, the work, when stared at fixedly, would summon a haunting afterimage: the flag would live on retinally in regulation red, white, and blue, its persistence a physiological effect that no one willing to look long enough-the devoted connoisseur, say, or the dedicated patriot-could possibly fail to see. This is the canvas that most directly remembers Johns's decade-old dream of painting the flag, only to transform the initial spectral image of a dream-flag into the unexpected and involuntary optical response a flag painting can wring from its beholder, against her will.

Why turn the American flag into a painting? Why turn a painting into an American flag? To ask the questions this way breathes new life into the old flag-versus-painting debate. Here are the rudiments of an answer to both. Johns's complete giving over of his painting to a national symbol is as declarative as it is equivocal, a literalizing restatement of what was then a current critical claim. If you want American-type painting, well, here it is: decisively testing its status as painting, certainly; able to be looked at with enjoyment, maybe; but also declaring the conceptual limits-what is simultaneously parochial and aggressive-built into the very concept of a national American art. Those limits have less to do with technology and its rationalizations than with the complex and irrational affect that accompanies-still-this ultimate American sign. Johns's painting acknowledges the hegemonic position of American painting in the mid-1950s but, more to the point, also acknowledges American hegemony itself in some wider and more crucially affective way. Hegemony, remember, is a dualism-it requires both force and consent.

Force and consent: the British scholar Perry Anderson, the editor of New Left Review, chose those words as the title for an essay published in 2002 to examine current U.S. policy in light of international objectives in place since World War II. Anderson reminds us that "it is essential to bear in mind the formal figure of any hegemony, which necessarily always conjugates a particular power with a general task of coordination." I am not pretending my own small inquiry into Flag and the flag-Anderson's "formal figure of hegemony"-answers to the scale of his analysis, but I do want my effort to stay true to his essay's main force, which is to grasp how American hegemony works, the peculiar, shifting, often toxic balance between the particular and general, between ideological invitation and brutal bringing-into-line. And as Antonio Gramsci's initial propositions on hegemony sought to demonstrate, such power operates both nationally and locally, deep in the fabric of everyday life. Hegemony, Gramsci writes, defines the state's role in enlisting the allegiance of its citizens: "how each single individual [will] succeed in incorporating himself into the collective many, and how educative pressure [will] be applied to single individuals so as to obtain their consent and their collaboration, turning necessity and coercion into 'freedom.'" I am suggesting not so much that Flag references the operations of hegemony as that it condenses and enacts them: it makes them its own, as constitutive of the view of painting-of American-type painting-it defines. In fact Flag might best be described as a realist work: I have already, I hope, suggested why.

What Flag imports pragmatically into the viewing of art is the need ourselves to attend to dualities of meaning with more political realism. When we speak of "the order of total administration" or of "the abstractions of exchange value" or of "structural domination," we erase a whole register of the exercise and legitimation of power, not least locally, in the body of the nation itself. That process operates through persuasion, loyalty, allegiance, belonging; its signs are visceral and ubiquitous-"unflagging," we might say; the responses it solicits or mandates saturate the texture of the ordinary, just as Johns's hot and dangerous colors soaked into the snippets of newsprint they so perilously affix. What is most instructive about Flag-what in the end makes it a realist work-is its terrifying, inevitable ambivalence in the face of the kinds of commitment demanded by the United States. Robert Rosenblum was right to find Johns's imagery bewildering: never more so, I wager, than at a historical moment when the flag, if tattered and threadbare, is still dominant, still flies so high. It still provides the scrim through which its supporters, and maybe even its detractors, continue to see the world. The long-ago themes of The Americans do not go away. They will remain relevant, moreover, for years to come. What this will mean, both globally and locally, has yet to come fully into view. But one thing is certain: both the flag and the national mind-set will continue to be figured by artists who, like Johns, recognize the fatal power and persuasiveness of Americanism as a mode of representation and perception-as a form of political speech.

With this in mind, consider one final flag image: a work by Haacke, made public in time for the election of November 2004. Titled Star Gazing, it portrays, in a conventional portrait format, a young man in a T-shirt-an ordinary citizen-whose head is shrouded in and erased by the flag. The hood brings the torturer's work back home. As at Abu Ghraib, the victim's utter isolation and blindness are the point. Though a victim, however, he is also a citizen-heir to John Heartfield's cabbage-head, the reader of bourgeois papers, but also the offspring of the hidden man embedded in Johns's star. We are not used to thinking of Johns as an activist artist; in Haacke's case the opposite is true. Nor do we necessarily expect from Haacke, as we do from Johns, meditations on the ontological or perceptual status of the arts. But even granted these differences-and others I have not articulated-it is easy to see that both are concerned with the impact of nationalism, with the implications of the persuasions and forces to which, all too willingly, both persons and paintings give themselves up.

A final question presents itself: why study Flag in the first place? I have done so because I am a U.S. citizen; because the United States, backed by its allies, continues its engagement in murderous warfare at enormous human and ethical cost; and because, as Johns implicitly acknowledges, actions carried out in the name of the nation raise the issue of the citizen's ambiguous belonging to that nation. If these ambiguities are structured into U.S. hegemony-woven into its double logic, the logic of force and consent-it may be time to examine again, with microscopic precision, one's own belonging to that overarching logic and what it conceals. What are its materials? How deeply do they lie buried? According to what allegiances are they deployed? As I first formulated these questions, I was confident that these were also Johns's questions in 1954 and 1955. I still think so today. Of course he would never say as much. Instead he said, referring specifically to his deployment of newsprint while making Flag: "Perhaps some of the words went into my mind: I was not conscious of it." My point precisely: this is the lesson of Flag. Its taciturn citations speak to how decisively yet subtly our unconscious belonging to the national project can disrupt the surface of our daily life.