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Jasper Johns, Flag

Jasper Johns' American flag painting is explored, highlighting its unique encaustic technique and layered newspaper base. The artwork's symbolic representation of America's complex history is discussed, emphasizing its depth and texture. Johns' innovative approach to art, predating pop art, is also noted.

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] SAL KHAN: This is one that actually does speak to me in a very powerful way. When you look at something like an American flag, I think I kind of get it. I mean, it's such a powerful icon or image, and it evokes so many things. And it's something that you see so frequently, at least if you're an American. And if you're not American, it's something that you still probably see relatively frequently, and probably does represent something to you. But then to have it kind of re-imaged and re-imaged in this antiqued way. I can't fully articulate it and I won't claim that it's somehow challenging my philosophy in some profound way, but I kind of get it at a base level, what's trying to go on here. And I think that's why this painting has gotten so much popular attraction. I mean, it was on the cover of one of my history books when I was in high school. There are shirts that are made with this image. Am I not seeing the full "there" when I'm describing it that way, or is there even more to it? STEVEN ZUCKER: I think you're absolutely right. And I think that Johns would be really happy to hear what you just said. And I think he wanted this painting to function as something that did raise all kinds of meanings in the person who walked up to it. In a sense, what he's showing us is not so much a flag as a mirror, because it is such a potent symbol. And we all walk up to it with a lot of personal life experience. And it can mean very different things to very many different people. And in a sense, he's given us a very neutral field. So let's look at it really closely. We're not looking at a printed American flag, and we're not looking at a flag of cloth. And in fact, some critics at the time asked is this a painting, or is this a flag? In other words, is it a representation, or is it an actual flag? And of course, something that is symbolic, like a flag, can raise that kind of issue, which is one of the reasons that I think Johns was interested in it. But let's just look at the surface for a moment. This is an object that actually stands off the wall a few inches. It's canvas that's on top of plywood. And so it is this slightly shallow box-like form. And if you look at the surface, it's really heavily worked. And it's not traditional oil paint or even the more modern acrylic. This is something that's called encaustic, which is an ancient Egyptian painting technique that Johns revived. And other people have used in history. But it's ancient. And it's translucent and it's lumpy, but it also allows you to see through it. And when you look through this sort of lumpy surface of the wax what you see are strips of newspaper. It's sort of torn up. And so you can't really read it. There's not a continuous story, but it is clearly this pigment, this wax, on top of the debris of our political life. SAL KHAN: And I think that's why. Maybe you guys are just doing a good job training me. I mean, this one really speaks to me, because especially the texture and the fact that it is not printed. It is handmade and it has those layers to it. It's a very powerful idea. When you just have a printed flag, it simplifies what a country is, or what the ideas a country represents are in its history. And when you look at this painting, yes, it's an American flag. But you appreciate, look, America is a-- there's context to America. There's a history to America. There's depth to America. There's texture to America. You look closer at America, it's not this simple idea. There's many, many, many layers to it. And I think this does a really good job. And I think this is why this is a painting a lot of people respond to, even people who might be traditionally skeptical to modern art. I think they viscerally feel a lot of those things when they see that. They feel a depth, a connection, to the narrative of America more than just this very red, white, and blue, simple idea of it. STEVEN ZUCKER: I think that that's exactly right. And I think that Johns is taking this opportunity to re-imagine then what art can be. That art can still, in some really fundamental way, represent really complex things. Not necessarily through the careful rendering or the careful representation of objects on a table, or a human face, but through a kind of symbolic language actually reference, and in some ways, actually depict a very complex American history. I think that's exactly right. SAL KHAN: We talk a lot about a lot of artists. What's really of note-- although, I think this is one of those pieces that I actually don't need that much context to really appreciate it. But to go to the next level of context, I mean, was Jasper Johns really one of the first to take really powerful images like an American flag and kind of re-render them in this type of way? STEVEN ZUCKER: He was. In fact, this is art that's being produced before pop art exists. And so this idea of actually turning his canvas, turning his paintbrush, on a visual form that is itself fixed is a fascinating idea. Think about what he's giving up. The things that we value in painting traditionally have to do with the artist's choice of color, of composition, and those things are given here. Those are already set. He's not messing with that. And yet, this is still not entirely a flag so much as a representation of a flag. And in that way, it's walking on this very narrow edge. SAL KHAN: I mean, it's really strange to me, because we've talked about the traditional art. If you go back 500, 800 years ago, it was always representational, all the way to the Renaissance. And then more modern art has all been about ideas and pushing our thinking. And this definitely falls into that latter category. But it really does-- maybe it's just me-- but it emotes something in me that is aesthetic, that is as powerful as any of these. And obviously, it's an American flag, and that by itself can create powerful emotions, but just the way it was rendered also creates feelings and depth that I haven't actually felt from a lot of the modern pieces we've looked at.