'Three Flags' and other rare Jasper Johns works unveiled at the Broad

Deborah Vankin, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES -- One night in 1954, Jasper Johns had a dream: He was painting the image of an American flag. He rose the next morning, stretched his bed sheets into a makeshift canvas and began re-creating the picture lingering in his head.

More flags followed, now among his most iconic motifs.

The morning after President Trump's State of the Union address, one of Johns' most significant flag paintings -- stacked canvases known as "Three Flags" -- went up on a gallery wall at the Broad museum. The work, on loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., almost never travels. It has been on loan only four times since the museum acquired it in 1980. It's one of Johns' earliest flag paintings and, as an encaustic work painted with a mixture of melted beeswax and pigment, it's also one of his most delicate.

At the Broad, "Three Flags" was hung in a protective Plexiglass "bonnet" for the exhibition "Jasper Johns: 'Something Resembling Truth,'" the first U.S. survey of the artist's work in more than 20 years. The show, organized by the Royal Academy of Arts in London, in collaboration with the Broad, opens Saturday and is the only U.S. stop of this tour.

The exhibition presents six decades of Johns' work, including more than 120 paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures, with an eye toward illuminating through-lines and changes in the artist's oeuvre. Many of the works haven't been displayed in Los Angeles before.

"To see all these masterworks together is just -- it's transcendent," said Broad director Joanne Heyler, who was overseeing the installation of "Three Flags" along with Matthew Skopek, a curator from the Whitney.


Heyler and the Broad's Ed Schad co-curated the L.A. incarnation of the exhibition, which includes eight significant works that didn't show in London, "Three Flags" being one of them. The show is organized thematically, as it was presented in London, rather than chronologically, which is unusual for a survey exhibition. By juxtaposing Johns' early and late-career works, as well as the various media he worked in, the exhibition illuminates recurring imagery and concepts in Johns' oeuvre, not to mention the innovation he was known for.

Unlike at the Royal Academy, the Broad's first gallery in the show is devoted entirely to the artist's flags. It's an intimate space chock-full of red, white and blue -- and orange and charcoal gray. There's his small 1955 graphite drawing, "Flag," the earliest flag work in the show; and there's the so-called 1958 "Leo Castelli flag," a 5-foot-wide flag with thick, prominent brushwork rendered entirely in wax and paint, that was in the late New York gallerist's family for decades. The painting of two flags against a gray background, "Flags" (1965), is from Johns' personal collection.

"Three Flags," created in 1958 when Alaska and Hawaii weren't yet states, has just 48 stars on it. It hangs beside the Broad's "Flag" (1967), which has 50 stars on it.

Like all of Johns' works featuring common signs and symbols -- flags, targets, numbers, letters, maps -- the flag works not only challenged the premises of abstract expressionism but also questioned the medium of painting itself. His flags weren't meant to be emotional or political statements as much as purely visual ones, the familiar image suddenly unfamiliar in its new context. The depiction on canvas is, simply, a painterly gesture, both the picture of a flag and an object unto itself.


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