“One night I dreamed that I painted a large American flag,” said the artist Jasper Johns, revealing the inspiration behind Flag (1954-55). The work, considered Neo-Dadaist by some, predates aspects of Pop, Minimalism and Conceptual art, bucking the wave of Abstract Expressionism that had developed in New York during the 1940s and 1950s. In taking on of America’s most significant symbols, Johns—who would go on to paint more than 40 iterations of the work—influenced countless contemporary artists to engage with the image in both patriotic and subversive ways.
Johns never spoke directly about his intentions in creating Flag, which is now part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Yet, in an interview in 1990, he recalled a childhood memory that may have been formative: “In Savannah, Georgia, in a park, there is a statue of Sergeant William Jasper. Once I was walking through this park with my father, and he said that we were named for him. Whether or not that is in fact true or not, I don’t know. Sergeant Jasper lost his life raising the American flag over a fort.”
When I first encountered Johns’ work as a young adult, a wave of patriotic pride washed over me, transporting me back to elementary school, where small American hands fall over hearts whenever the flag flies. Flag is a largish object, measuring 42.2” by 60.6”, created using the fast-drying Ancient Egyptian wax technique encaustic, together with oil paint and newsprint collage on three separate canvases set on plywood. It reflects the shape of America in those years: 48 white stars symbolizing the states in the Union (Alaska and Hawaii are omitted); and 13 red and white stripes, an homage to the original colonies that broke free of British rule.
AA Bronson’s was inspired by Johns’ White Flag (1955) to create a series of the same name in 2014. His version is given a grim twist: by covering his flags in a chalky, white powder, he refers back to the dust that covered New York as the Twin Towers fell on 9/11. The name of the works also alludes to a plant called white flag, a flower that has been popular in Muslim and Christian cemeteries for thousands of years.
There is redemption in Robert Mapplethorpe’s Flag (1987), a black and white photograph of a pristine banner flying proud above the clouds, which he captured near the end of his life, when he was dying of AIDS. He had first depicted Old Glory, as the flag was nicknamed by the 19th-century sea captain William Driver, a decade earlier in American Flag (1977). The image, which was taken on Fire Island in New York, is formally beautiful, the torn ends of a tattered flag referring to the innate hopefulness of this country’s founding as well as the turmoil of its history.
Those frayed ends prefigured William Pope. L’s Trinket, a monumental American flag measuring around 54ft x 16ft that hung on a pole in the Geffen Contemporary at LA MoCA in 2015. The flag was blown continuously by four industrial fans (the kind used in Hollywood to manipulate the weather), a wind-whipping that caused the ends to unravel—which Pope.L saw as a metaphor for the arduous process of engaging in democracy.
On a much smaller scale, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s crumpled 1979 Untitled (Flag), in which he switches the usual stars for a large letter “X”. The artist “always saw the flag as American art”, according to his former roommate Alexis Adler.
As I’ve grown older and become more aware of my blackness and my American-ness, I’ve wondered whether our shared flag could celebrate my community: its black hair; its unique style and language; the pain of its history; our fight for cultural power. David Hammons reimagined the flag along these lines in Untitled (African-American Flag) (1990), a work currently flying high outside the Studio Museum in the historically black neighborhood of Harlem.
Created in the Pan-African tricolor of red, green and black, Hammons fuses national and local, slyly suggesting the separateness of the African-American experience. Made on the occasion of the election of David Dinkins as the first and only black mayor of New York, the current installation of the flag almost 30 years after its creation begs the question: where is the progress?
Hammons’ African-American Flag (a version of which sold at Phillips New York in May this year for $2m, est. $70,000-$1m), colored his stars black. I imagine them as 50 black patriots: Harriet Tubman, Amiri Baraka, Sally Hemings, Malcolm X, Nina Simone, Coretta Scott King, Emmett Till, Louies Armstrong, Audre Lorde, Marian Robinson, John W. Boyd Jr, Philando Castille, Beyoncé, my mother… Unlike, Johns’ work, which lives indoors in temperature-controlled environments, Hammons’ American-American Flag lives outside, battling the elements.
Other artists have made the black experience more overt. In The Black Light Series: Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger (1969), Faith Ringgold wrote the words “DIE NIGGER” across a painted image of the flag. “It would be impossible for me to picture the American flag just as a flag, as if that is the whole story,” she said at the time. “I need to communicate my relationship with this flag based on my experience as a black woman in America.”
More recently, Awol Erizku’s HOW THAT MAKE YOU FEEL? (2017) comprises an embossed silkscreen print of the Black Panther logo on a found flag, fusing the organization’s radical revolutionary ideas with America’s own.
For artists who feel disempowered, there is power in reworking the imagery. Robert Longo’s large-scale sculpture, Untitled (The Pequod) (2014)—named after Ahab’s doomed ship in Hermann Melville’s Moby Dick—is a large, black, wooden American flag sinking into the ground like a wrecked ship, which appears to be a metaphor for the darkness beneath American hegemony.
Similarly, Barbara Kruger’s 1991 work, Untitled (Questions), converts the white stars and stripes into text interrogating America’s history of gender inequality, patriarchy and jingoism. The lettering is pretty but the questions she poses are difficult: “Who is free to choose? Who is beyond the law? Who is healed? Who is housed? Who speaks? Who is silenced?”
The use and abuse of the American flag was the subject of the exhibition “Old Glory: The American Flag in Contemporary Art” a 1994 survey at Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art. Donald Lipski’s chair wrapped in an American flag, Who’s Afraid of Red, White & Blue # 13 (1990), was presented next to Andrew Krasnow’s 48 Star Flag (NU)5? (1990)—a flag made of dried human flesh. In Kate Millett’s The American Dream Goes to Pot (1970), the flag is stuffed in a toilet, an abusive presentation of the banner for protestors of the show. (It was closed when shown at Phoenix Art Museum two years later)
Yet more controversial was Dread Scott’s 1989 installation, What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? Part of a larger series, American Newspeak… Please Feel Free (1989), the installation comprises a photo montage of South Korean students burning American flags and holding signs saying, “Yankee go home son of bitch” and of flag-draped US military coffins. Scott placed a flag on the ground, laying notebooks on top of it with pens for the audience—who would have to step on the flag to answer the question posed by the work’s title.
The original display of the work at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1989, which President Bush Sr. called “disgraceful”, led to a court case. Congress strengthened a law banning the desecration of American flags in response to Scott’s installation and controversy about flag burning at the time. Seeing this as “compulsory patriotism”, Scott led a flag-burning protest on the steps of the Capitol. This resulted in the landmark 1990 Supreme Court decision, United States v. Eichman, in which the court ruled that Americans have a First Amendment right to burn or display the country’s flag however we want.
The notebooks revealed the changing thought process of one museum visitor. She simply read the clippings and observed other peoples’ reactions on a first visit. Then, a few days later, she went back to see the work again, this time picking up the pen to write: “There are many questions you have raised. For that I thank you. It does hurt me to see the flag on the ground being stepped on. Yet now after days have passed, I have realized [that] this is the ultimate form of patriotism… Our country is so strong in believing what it stands for that we would allow you to do this. You have made me really think about my own patriotism, which has grown stronger.”