White Flag

Artist: Jasper Johns (American, born Augusta, Georgia, 1930)

Date: 1955

Medium: Encaustic, oil, newsprint, and charcoal on canvas

Dimensions: 78 5/16 x 120 3/4 in. (198.9 x 306.7 cm)

Classification: Paintings

Credit Line: Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace, Reba and Dave Williams, Stephen and Nan Swid, Roy R. and Marie S. Neuberger Foundation Inc., Louis and Bessie Adler Foundation Inc., Paula Cussi, Maria-Gaetana Matisse, The Barnett Newman Foundation, Jane and Robert Carroll, Eliot and Wilson Nolen, Mr. and Mrs. Derald H. Ruttenberg, Ruth and Seymour Klein Foundation Inc., Andrew N. Schiff, The Cowles Charitable Trust, The Merrill G. and Emita E. Hastings Foundation, John J. Roche, Molly and Walter Bareiss, Linda and Morton Janklow, Aaron I. Fleischman, and Linford L. Lougheed Gifts, and gifts from friends of the Museum; Kathryn E. Hurd, Denise and Andrew Saul, George A. Hearn, Arthur Hoppock Hearn, Joseph H. Hazen Foundation Purchase, and Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon B. Polsky Funds; Mayer Fund; Florene M. Schoenborn Bequest; Gifts of Professor and Mrs. Zevi Scharfstein and Himan Brown, and other gifts, bequests, and funds from various donors, by exchange, 1998

Accession Number: 1998.329

Rights and Reproduction: Art ©Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


Born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1930 and raised in South Carolina, Jasper Johns moved in 1949 to New York City, where he enrolled in a commercial art school for two semesters. Back in New York, following his service in the army (ca. 1950–51), Johns became acquainted with artist Robert Rauschenberg, composer John Cage, and dancer Merce Cunningham. By the mid- to late 1950s Johns had already achieved fame with his paintings of targets, numerals, and American flags, and his work was exhibited in prominent museums and galleries in New York. "White Flag" of 1955, recently acquired by the Metropolitan from the artist's own collection, exemplifies Johns's early style, which engendered a wide range of subsequent art movements, among them Pop Art, Minimal Art, and Conceptual Art. During the 1950s and 1960s Johns frequently appropriated well-known images (such as targets, flags, and beer cans), elevating them to cultural icons. Throughout his oeuvre — which includes painting, prints, drawings, and sculpture — images are constantly recycled and combined in extensive series. In his later compositions of the 1970s, Johns filled the surface of his pictures with colorful cross-hatchings (suggested by the passing cars on an expressway); and since the 1980s he has incorporated images that have more autobiographical significance.

"White Flag" is the largest of his flag paintings and the first in which the flag is presented in monochrome. By draining most of the color from the flag but leaving subtle gradations in tone, the artist shifts our attention from the familiarity of the image to the way in which it is made. "White Flag" is painted on three separate panels: the stars, the seven upper stripes to the right of the stars, and the longer stripes below. Johns worked on each panel separately. After applying a ground of unbleached beeswax, he built up the stars, the negative areas around them, and the stripes with applications of collage — cut or torn pieces of newsprint, other papers, and bits of fabric. He dipped these into molten beeswax and adhered them to the surface. He then joined the three panels and overpainted them with more beeswax mixed with pigments, adding touches of white oil.

The fast-setting medium of encaustic enabled Johns to make each brushstroke distinct, while the forty-eight-star flag design — contiguous with the perimeters of the canvas — provided a structure for the richly varied surface, which ranges from translucent to opaque.