Scott Rothkopf: I’m Scott Rothkopf, the Nancy and Steve Crown Family Chief Curator at the Whitney Museum.

We’re looking at a painting called Three Flags by Jasper Johns. It was painted in 1958, about four years after Johns made his first painting of a flag. He said that he painted a flag the first time because it was something that came to him in a dream and he also was interested in painting things that he said “are things the mind already knows.” That is, things that we see in our daily lives that the artist doesn’t make up. In that sense, the flag was also in a series that also included targets, numbers, and other forms that Jasper, that Johns didn’t invent, but could take right out of the culture and the images that were all around him.

At the time he did this, it was a really radical act because most of the painting that he would have seen in New York and admired were abstract expressionist canvases that were full of aggressive, exciting, something beautiful and diaphanous marks that painters supposedly made directly on the surface and invented as a way of thinking about picturing a new world. This, by contrast, was something we could all recognize, a flag, a really common symbol.

More Audio Guides

Laura Owens audio guide
Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World audio guide
Toyin Ojih Odutola audio guide
An Incomplete History of Protest audio guide
An Incomplete History of Protest audio guide
Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium audio guide