|Photograph: Jasper Johns/British Museum|
Jasper Johns' Flags I is the perfect image to wave in Trump's face
The British Museum has marked the United States’ big vote by announcing its acquisition of Flags I, the screenprint by Jasper Johns that is said to be worth millions. Three years ago, the London venue put this image on the posters and catalogue for an exhibition called The American Dream. That title sounds almost quaint today. Who, at the close of Donald Trump’s first term in the White House, can now utter that phrase without irony? American Dream? Can those words really apply, given that the arrival of this election has been marked by shops and businesses being boarded up, and with Trump making bizarre remarks challenging the sanctity of the poll, threatening the entire democratic process?
What makes Johns’ American flag so perfect for this charged, climactic moment? Well, this is an anxious image of the nation fraying. But to fully understand this work, you need to follow Johns’ very personal interpretations of the flag over nearly 70 years.
Johns is not an overtly political artist. He’s reticent about every aspect of his art and life. In the 1950s he, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly formed both an art movement and a love triangle. They all broke with the austere sublimity of abstract expressionism to incorporate real life in their creations – from Rauschenberg mixing photographs, paint and stuffed animals in his Combines, to Twombly spattering enigmatic graffiti on to canvas. But the breakthrough for this new approach, to art and to life, came when Johns made his first US flag in 1954-55.