But it would be hard to imagine a roomful of flags not resonating today.
"Although his mind wasn't on politics when he launched this series," Heyler said, "it's interesting, as a historian, to look at context in the '50s and McCarthyism and what was going on in the country then. Given that we're currently living through a rather turbulent moment, politically, now, I'm sure visitors will reflect on that as they look at these images.
"But they also are so compelling as paintings. They're just crafted and painted so masterfully, and that's an equally critical piece to understanding what's going on in this gallery."
The flag paintings -- like all of Johns' works depicting symbols -- Schad added, disrupt viewers' knee-jerk reactions and instead "slow that way down, to the point of an object and an image and what a thing does in the world."
Eight thematic sections lead the viewer through the exhibition. "Things the Mind Already Knows," which the flags are part of, presents some of Johns' best known images, playing with the viewers' sense of perception regarding everyday objects. "Words and Voices" shows how Johns saw language in relationship to visual perception; it includes a series of Samuel Beckett narrative shorts, for which Johns created prints evoking the language. "Time and Transience" includes the first Johns painting, "Untitled (1975)," which museum founders Eli and Edythe Broad acquired in 1978, an abstract-looking piece with jagged colorful markings.
"In the Studio" focuses on the life of an artist and includes Johns' famous sculpture, "Painted Bronze" (1960), of a coffee can filled with paint brushes. "Fragments and Faces" includes Johns' "Perilous Night" (1982), in which he silk-screened a page from a John Cage score onto the canvas. "Seasons and Cycles" pulls together Johns' Seasons paintings -- the first time all four have been shown together in L.A.
Johns, who is 87 and lives in Connecticut, isn't traveling to L.A. for the exhibition or doing interviews, the Broad said, but the show has already generated much excitement given its sheer breadth. In addition to private loans as well as pieces from the Broad's collection and from the artist himself, nearly every major museum in the U.S., and several internationally -- including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Tate, London -- contributed key artworks. For the Broad Foundation, which has made more than 8,500 loans since the early '80s, Heyler said, this collective effort to create " 'Something Resembling Truth' " feels like "the completion of a collegial relationship."
That collaborative spirit crosses over into programming around the exhibition. Johns is a reader and lover of the arts, an interdisciplinary thinker who collaborated with close friends such as choreographer Merce Cunningham and composer Cage. The programming lineup blends dance, poetry, live discussions and music.
The "Cross-Hatched" series will feature pianist Adam Tendler performing with experimental vocalist Joan La Barbara; Tendler will also provide piano accompaniment to snippets from dance films from the Merce Cunningham Trust. For an evening called "Incidents and Echoes," Tendler will perform Cage compositions that share titles or other connections with Johns' paintings.
The Broad will also present the "Unfolding Language Literary Series" in collaboration with the Library Foundation of Los Angeles' Aloud program. Over two evenings, L.A. authors such as Chris Kraus and Rigoberto Gonzalez will read their own work and the work of authors who inspired Johns, like Beckett, Herman Mel-ville and Hart Crane.