Three Flags

7:00 AM

Jasper Johns, Three Flags, 1958

Three years after painting Flag and White Flag, Jasper Johns created my personal favorite among his works: Three Flags. The painting is technically fantastic with clean lines, hues of time-faded white fabric, and unbelievable depth extracted from an object as flat as a flag. The painting jumps out at you—flies into your personal space—and has a freshness in its style. With stars and stripes on stars and stripes on stars and stripes, one can see nothing but good old-fashioned patriotism. So that was Johns's goal, right? Good. Simple analysis—moving on.

Surprisingly, love/hatred of America was not the idea behind the work. During the first part of his career, Johns used "concrete" subjects—familiar items from everyday life—to withdraw emotion from his paintings. Since they already feel comfortable with the image in front of them, viewers feel an automatic association with Johns's works.

The emotional response elicited by Three Flags also results from the highly symbolic nature of its subject matter. Observers' reactions differ dramatically based on their national allegiance and the point in time at which they view the painting. For any person, though, it is difficult not to have personal experiences tied to a symbol as omnipresent as the American flag. Although he tried to remove emotion by using clear, tangible objects, Jasper Johns created a highly affecting piece with Three Flags, whose simplicity generates ever-changing reception.

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