This symbol of American freedom has been the source of inspiration to many artists throughout the last century – often using it’s iconic image to form political commentary about the issues facing the nation. Artists have used it to both honor their country and tear it down. While Jasper Johns repped the American flag harder than most, in honor of the Fourth of July here are a few other artists that reinterpreted the symbol with materials ranging from toy soldiers to drift wood.
Three Flags by Jasper Johns
His work comprises three canvases painted with hot wax. The three canvases form a tiered arrangement, with each canvas approximately 25% smaller than the one below, thereby creating a three-dimensional work. Each canvas is painted to resemble the version of the United States flag that was in use at the time the work was painted, with 48 white stars in a blue canton on a field of thirteen alternating red and white stripes. In a sense, the perspective is reversed, with the smaller paintings projecting out towards the viewer. Only the topmost smallest painting is fully visible; the two behind are only partially visible.
Flag by Leo Villareal
Leo Villareal updates the motif with his signature use of LED lights and custom computer software. This edition of 10 is a new version of an earlier Flag, which he produced in 2008.
American Flag by Vic Muniz
What lies at the heart of Muniz’s work is the idea of what he calls a “perceptual bottleneck.” In this work, the viewer can choose either to see the subject (a flag) or the substance from which it is made (plants). It is this two-pronged approach—the creation and then the documentation—that makes Muniz’s work a unique combination of real event and reproduction.
Video Flag Z by Nam June Paik
Nam June Paik known as the “Father of Video Art,” created multiple video installations over the span of his life, acting as an influential pioneer for the contemporary art world. Video Flag Z includes television sets, videodiscs, videodiscs players, and Plexiglas modular cabinet – That’s a whole lot of hardware!
U.S.A. Flag by Claes Oldenburg
After a summer in Provincetown spent constructing “flags” from driftwood and other flotsam, Oldenburg returned to New York City, where he made U.S.A. Flag, his first painted plaster-soaked-canvas relief. U.S.A. Flag extinguishes the visual ambiguity characteristic of the Provincetown sculptures: Oldenburg painted the plaster mass with tempera in the unmistakable pattern of the American flag. This coalescence of painting and sculpture, mediums typically kept apart, is a hallmark of Oldenburg’s Store works, begun later that autumn. “My struggle has been to return painting to the tangible object,” Oldenburg wrote in his notebook, “which is like returning the personality to touching and feeling the world around it, to offset the tendency to vagueness and abstraction. To remind people of practical activity, to suggest the sense and not to escape from the senses.”
Flag #10 by Sara Rahbar
Sara Rahbar was born in Tehran, yet was forced to leave with her family during the period of immense upheaval that followed the revolution in Iran and the start of the Iran-Iraq war. This distance, this proximity is developed by the artist, based on memory, longing and inertia in inhabiting tensions of dual disjuncture. Rahbar studied in London and New York, and now spends most of her productive life between Tehran and New York. In this going back and forth, an apocalyptic memory has been revised in her reworking of traditional materials into proto-contemporary textiles and textures of national belonging. The symbol of ideological and nationalistic violence, the Flag, has been one of the main focuses of her collage conversations and contestations.
Memorial Flag (Toy Soldiers) by Dave Cole
Cole created what he considers an actual flag rather than an artistic representation by melting together and then painting 18,000 toy soldiers armed with their guns, the soldiers of the type that most every American boy learned to play and fantasize with growing up in the 20th century. Collecting soldiers and playing “army” was a reliable alternative to honing one’s baseball card collection and playing backyard fantasy ball. The varying shapes of the soldiers in different positions and holding different weapons gives the work its rough-hewn, notable texture when seen from a distance.
New York City Ballet by Keith Haring
This work was a poster for the New York City Ballet in 1988. Keith Haring’s signature yellow figures strike ballet poses and interact with the flag, getting in between the stars and balancing on the stripes. The work dares to be disrespectful through a conservative lens, but it is ultimately whimsical and amusing.
Untitled (Questions) by Barbara Kruger
Untitled (Questions) is a piece that speaks to the Barbara Kruger’s preoccupation with ideas of power, feminism, and consumerism. Using red and blue blocking and white text, her piece creates an alternate image of the American flag. The questions she elicits, such as “Who laughs last?”, are accusatory and profound in their simplicity. It has the feel of propaganda and forces its viewer to be critical.
Happy Fourth of July!!!