Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

Three Flags (1958): The Story of Jasper Johns’ iconic piece

Jasper Johns’ Three Flags is an essential work of pop art and exemplifies his mature style. It lays clear his desire to question popular imagery through painting in order to encourage the viewer to examine how we look at the world around us. In this article, Singulart discusses Jasper Johns’ career and his iconic work Three Flags.

Who is Jasper Johns? 

Jasper Johns (born May 15 1930) is an American painter, sculptor and printmaker associated with the postwar movements of abstract expressionism, neo-dada and pop art. Born in Georgia, he grew up in South Carolina, a place he described as barren of artists and artistic activity but where he nevertheless decided he wanted to become an artist at a young age. After 3 semesters at the University of South Carolina, he moved to New York to study at Parsons School of Design in 1949. This too was cut short as he was stationed in Sendai, Japan in 1952 during the Korean War and would remain out there for two years. 

After his return to New York in 1954, he met the artist Robert Rauschenberg and the pair were soon in a long-term relationship. They were also close friends with other avant-garde artists such as Merce Cunningham and John Cage. Johns’ work caught the eye of the gallery owner Leo Castelli when he was visiting Rauschenberg, which led to his first solo show in 1958. It was here where Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, bought four of his works. In 1963, Johns founded the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts in New York with John Cage. He continues to live and work in Sharon, Connecticut to this day. 

Johns’ work is often labelled as neo-dada and pop art due to his desire to expand the possibilities of painting beyond the canvas and into objecthood. This shift is seen through his use of everyday subject matter, from the American flag to targets and numbers. It was this combination of ambition and his avant-garde painting techniques that led to him being recognized as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.  

Johns art
Jasper Johns

What’s happening in Three Flags

Johns’ mature period is considered to begin in the mid 1950’s when he began painting what would become his signature emblem: the American flag. He turned to this subject matter because he wanted to explore the idea of “things the mind already knows”, which was a popular theme in pop art at the time. In addition to the flags, he also depicted targets, maps and letters in an aim to create images that are concerned with things he thought were “seen and not looked at, not examined”. Therefore, his aim with Three Flags was to create an image that encourages the viewer to really look at and examine the American Flag. He wanted to analyze the image often viewed only in its symbolic gaze and not for its aesthetic qualities – an everyday image that is instantly recognizable but simultaneously always skimmed over by habit. 

Johns accomplished this through his experimental technique and composition as the painting draws attention not only to the image of the flag, but to Johns’ painting process itself. He worked from the American flag of the time, which was made up of 48 white stars in a blue canton, on top of thirteen red and white stripes. He used a mix of pigment and warm wax so that each stroke congealed as he painted to create a textural, almost sculptural, surface. It is in this way that he constructed three flags, each one reduced in scale by 25% from the last so that they created the illusion of a three dimensional work. This composition challenges traditional ideas of perspective in painting: whereas scenes are supposed to recede from the picture plane, Johns flipped this expectation by causing the flags to project outwards towards the viewer. 

Consequently, Johns shifts the focus away from the symbolic meaning of the flag in several ways. First, by extracting it from the normal context in which it is viewed, it is no longer a flag but a painting; and secondly, by emphasizing the painterly qualities of the image. It is the patterns, shapes and colors, as well as the textured surface created by the combination of paint and wax, that are the focus, not the ensemble of the flag. As a result, he succeeded in his desire to “go beyond the limits of the flag, and to have a different canvas space.”

Johns’ Three Flags is considered one of the crucial works of pop art and was purchased by New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art for $1 million in 1980.

View our Inspired by Jasper Johns collection here.