The 25 Best Artworks About the U.S. Flag, From the Patriotic to the Provocative
In 1970, at the Judson Memorial Church in New York, Jon Hendricks, Faith Ringgold, and Jean Toche opened “The People’s Flag Show,” an art exhibition that has gone down in history not for what was on view but for what happened once the exhibition let visitors in. Shortly after it was inaugurated, police arrived at the show, which itself was intended as a protest against the widespread practice of charging people for desecrating the U.S. flag amid the Vietnam War. As it happens, the organizers would go on to face those very same charges.
Hendricks and Toche were arrested when police arrived at the church; Michele Wallace, Ringgold’s daughter, was very nearly detained, too, but Ringgold stepped in and called on officers to arrest her instead, since Wallace was a minor. In 1971, the three were made to pay $100 each. They narrowly avoided a jail sentence, and though they had gained what was technically a victory, they still used the occasion to sound an unpatriotic sentiment. “We have been convicted, but in fact it is this nation and these courts who are guilty,” they said.
As these events and the exhibition itself go to show, the American flag has been a poignant symbol for artists across the centuries. For many, it has been a way of rousing national pride and speaking to the country’s resistance in the face of adversity. For many others, it has been a means of critiquing the nation during times of war and a way of pointing out longstanding histories of colonialism, racism, sexism, and homophobia that are still unfolding.
This list collects 25 important works that involve the American flag in its may forms. The artistic responses here range from the uplifting to the shrewdly critical, from the beautiful to the ugly. They include a Civil War–era plea for unity, a dance performance in which flags become clothes, a classic of postwar art history, and an unsparing critique of this country’s violence against Native Americans.
The 25 greatest works about the American flag follow below.
Fritz Scholder, The American Indian, 1970
In his own words, Fritz Scholder, whose grandmother was an enrolled member of California’s Luiseño tribe, was raised “non-Indian,” and he had never intended to embrace his Native American heritage. It wasn’t until the ’60s when, as a teacher at Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts, he embarked on painting his “Indian” works. As Scholder thought of them, these works were intended to offer up true pictures of the people the artist often witnessed around him that stood in opposition to the stereotyped ones that are still pervasive in the U.S. The American Indian, a work from that series, features a Native American—his nation is not identified—garbed in clothes that could be described as a cross between traditional wear and an American flag. For Native Americans in the U.S., the American flag recalls carnage, colonialism, broken treaties, and the theft of the land they had lived on for generations. In picturing this man in this decidedly controversial way, Scholder hints at a violence that is inseparable from Native American identity. Moreover, it may even be impossible to divorce that violence from Scholder’s own identity, as curator Paul Chaat Smith, who organized a 2008 retrospective for the artist, once labeled the “Indian” works “self-portraits” of a sort.
May Stevens, Dark Flag, 1976
During the time of the Vietnam War, May Stevens began a series that she termed “Big Daddy,” a grouping of paintings that depicted a figure based loosely on her father, whom she viewed as a racist, a misogynist, and a war hawk. With a thin head that can be said to resemble a phallus, the white figure in these works was intended to symbolize the patriarchy writ large. In Dark Flag, that figure can barely be seen, however. Instead, he is ensconced in an American flag whose stars mysteriously seem to have glided off its fabric and onto the painting’s background. Rather than being jovial and bright, the flag’s colors are dark and foreboding. Adding to the painting’s menacing aura is the fact that the figure appears to have tripled. Painted the year after the end of the Vietnam War, this painting aligns the American flag with forms of male domination, linking the country’s jingoism to the patriarchy through a seemingly simple visual language.
Nicholas Galanin, The American Dream Is Alie and Well, 2012
A long history of colonialism in the U.S. informs Nicholas Galanin’s The American Dream Is Alie and Well, which may at first glance resemble the bear skin rugs associated with the Western frontier, with one obvious tweak: the skin is formed not by an animal pelt but by the U.S. flag itself. Subtler differences between the real thing and Galanin’s version come in the form of the bear’s claws, which are formed from bullets, and its teeth, which are gold-leafed. The work points to how the plundering of land belonging to Native Americans was a violent act, one that involved not only the seizure of natural resources but also their genocide. What at first appears to be a typo in this work’s title reveals itself to be a purposeful pun.
William N. Copley, Untitled (Think/flag), 1967
This print first appeared in the legendary 1967 portfolio “Artists and Writers Protest against the War in Vietnam,” which also included works by Mark di Suvero, Leon Golub, Allan D’Arcangelo, and others. William N. Copley’s contribution is among the most understated yet the most impactful ones of the portfolio. It represents an American flag that appears to have been sucked dry of color, its red and blue stripes rendered only as unevenly inked slabs of black. In place of the stars is a bold message: “THINK.” Produced during a particularly tense moment in the U.S., this simple but effective print encourages its viewer to mull what really lies beneath the American flag, which was seen all too often in the hands of soldiers who wrought horrors of all kinds on the Vietnamese and Cambodian populations—and many others like them before that war.
Childe Hassam, Day of Allied Victory, 1917
Childe Hassam virtually made a career out of painting the American flag, lining his sun-drenched streetscapes with the Stars and Stripes hung all over the place. He was prolific, though his results varied in quality—audiences at the time found some of his later works chintzy, and his paintings can appear even more retrograde with distance. But he had a hit with Days of Allied Victory (1917), which is now owned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. This Impressionism-inspired painting pictures the day during World War I when Americans took to the streets to celebrate the country’s entry into the conflict. The ebullient mood is portrayed through the rich colors of the American, French, and British flags that loom above urbanites’ heads. With flags zigzagging across the composition, Hassam’s painting emblematizes the joy felt by many at the time who wanted the U.S. to link up forces with the French and the British. He called the painting and its associated series a celebration of “the coming together of [our] three peoples in the fight for democracy.”
Ming Smith, America Seen Through Stars and Stripes (New York), 1976
In this photograph, a Black man stands against a surface that appears to reflect the street before him. Smith, a member of the all-Black photographers’ collective the Kamoinge Workshop, has spoken of an attraction to formal experimentation within the medium of photography that is unusual for artists working today. Indeed, the picture enacts a hypnotic play between background and foreground, thanks to the surface behind this man and the lens of his glasses (which themselves could be likened to Smith’s own lens). The flags portrayed here likewise become a formal device, sectioning off portions of the composition. In another version of the same photograph, Smith painted wispy red stripes across the picture, heightening the image’s visual allure. The flag imagery would have taken on a political valence, given that the Vietnam War and protests over anti-Black violence of the ’60s were not long in the past when this picture was taken. That context is further complicated by the fact that it was taken during the country’s Bicentennial celebrations. “The red paint in America Seen through Stars and Stripes emphasizes even more the violence that was done and is still being done to Black people,” Smith said in an interview included in a 2020 Aperture monograph.
Thornton Dial, Don't Matter How Raggly The Flag, It Still Got To Tie Us Together, 2003
Because of the date when this mixed-media painting by Thornton Dial was made, it has been widely seen as a response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq—an interpretation only bolstered by the look of the flags used, which are tied up, tattered, and slathered with paint, as though to imply some form of carnage. The violence endemic to American culture was something Dial knew a thing or two about, as a Black man born on a former plantation to a family whose members had been sharecroppers. But the title of this painting and the image that can just barely be glimpsed beneath the chaos, of two figures who appear in close proximity, could be said to suggest a longing for something better. Still, any sense of hope is tempered by some Dial’s materials, which include mattress coils. Curator Joanne Cubbs has said that the coils could act as “a metaphor for the hard bed we’ve made for ourselves.”
Nam June Paik, Video Flag, 1996
As with Nam June Paik’s other expansive installations composed of densely edited appropriated televisual material, Video Flag features images of U.S. Presidents, digital stars, and flashing news imagery. When seen from afar, the 84 CRT monitors combine to form a flag whose stripes flicker rapidly. In the decades leading up to the making of Video Flag (of which there are multiple versions), Paik had grown interested in video as a medium that could potentially unite people living across disparate parts of the world. This work fits right in line with that goal, effectively implying that video could reach citizens all over the globe in the same way that an American flag could. It also likens the media to a flag—a signifier of one’s identity that informs who a person is. As Paik would have seen it, the images we see on TV every day are just as integral in shaping the ways we act as the emblems of the countries from which we hail.
Carlos Martiel, Fundamento, 2020
Many of Carlos Martiel’s performances involve the artist subjecting his body to physically painful situations—standing in the nude for prolonged periods of time, for example, or undergoing surgery in which a couple of inches of flesh were removed from his body. Born in Havana and based in New York, he creates works that address the multitudes of violence wrought upon Afro-Latinx communities, both in the present and in the past. Fundamento, which was made following the murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer, involves the artist lying on a floor with his hands and feet bound by an American flag. It evinces an explicitly unpatriotic sentiment, one that casts an eye toward forms of containment used against BIPOC communities across the U.S. for centuries. “The work was conceived in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and refers to the historic oppression and systematic violence that the BIPOC population is subjected to in the Americas, and more specifically in the United States,” Martiel told Gayletter.
Doreen Lynette Garner, Betsey’s Flag, 2019
Part of a larger body of work dealing with J. Marion Sims, a white gynecologist who performed horrifying forced experiments on enslaved Black women without the use of anesthesia during the 19th century, this sculpture by Doreen Lynette Garner features a different type of stars and stripes than the other works on this list. Here, the subject is the very flag that was sewn by Betsy Ross, the 13 stars of which were arranged in a circular pattern. The work’s title, with another spelling of Ross’s first name, is a pun: Betsey was one of the women on whom Sims performed his gruesome surgeries. In place of the fabric used to craft that flag, Garner offers up strips of stapled silicone that act as stand-ins for Black skin. The effect is abject, even revolting, and the work powerfully suggests that exploited Black flesh forms the fabric of this nation. But Betsey’s Flag could also be read as a kind of reclamation, given its reverse, a surface resembling skin tissue that is adorned with a rich array of beads. Constructed through a laborious process, the verso of the work suggests a beautiful form of persistence beneath an ugly façade.
Yolanda M. López, Free Los Siete, 1969
The American flag has long been used as a form of political messaging to promote national pride, though some turned the symbol around and used it toward decidedly unpatriotic means. That’s the case in Yolanda M. López’s print Free Los Siete (1969), which was used to protest the imprisonment of six Latinos in San Francisco the year this work was made. Those young men, plus a seventh one who was not caught by police, were spotted moving a television by two officers who believed they stole it. A fight ensued that left one officer dead and the other injured. During a 1970 trial, all of the young men, known as Los Siete de la Raza, were acquitted. In López’s poignant plea for the release and exoneration of these men, she pictures them in a cell whose bars are formed by the American flag’s stripes. Surrounding them is the Pledge of Allegiance, whose text is clipped at the word “free” so as to contrast their detainment. Circulated at rallies and in publications, the print became one of the iconic images associated with protests by the Latinx community of the day to free these men. The work shows that, in this country, amid a culture of racism and inequality, liberty and justice is not granted to all.
Benny Andrews, Did the Bear Sit Under a Tree?, 1969
It’s instructive to compare this painting to another that Benny Andrews made three years before it, Flag Day (1966). In Flag Day, Andrews appears to emerge from a seemingly endless field of waving red and blue stripes. He meekly peers out, looking slightly shocked that he has crawled out from under the weight of Americana. In Did the Bear Sit Under a Tree?, Andrews depicts himself in a much more combative way, with two fists raised, as though to ward off an encroaching American flag, which seems to have rolled itself up in retreat. Painted the year that Andrews cofounded the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, a storied activist collective that called attention to structural racism in art institutions and beyond, this work emblematizes the spirit that guided works by many artists during the time of the Black Power movement. It shows one way that Black artists took to task the most basic symbols of Americana which had long been used to communicate a form of patriotism that did not apply to them.
Frederic Edwin Church, Our Banner in the Sky, ca. 1861
In this elegant painting, the American flag emerges from a star-studded twilight sky hanging over a verdant landscape. Frederic Edwin Church’s painting dazzles with its bold colors and thrills with its clever composition; for some, its primary effect will be to evoke awe, even though the work, in all its various versions, is rather small. But at the time, Our Banner in the Sky would have evoked a heartrending mix of beauty and sadness, given its fraught context during the Civil War. Some have even suggested that the painting is a direct response to the Battle of Fort Sumter, in which Confederate soldiers repeatedly shelled a Union bastion in South Carolina. No one on either side died during the conflict, but the event is remembered because the Union flag also survived, despite the fort surrendering after two days.
Historians have suggested that the red stripes that fade into the sky are not unlike the fabric of the flag itself, which came out of the battle tattered and distressed but still mostly whole in the end of it all. In rendering the flag in this way, Church, a leading Hudson River School painter known for his gorgeous images of natural vistas, suggested that there was something profoundly American about the land on which this country was set. (That patriotic idea was picked up by many artists in the decades to come, and has been subverted in recent years by many more who seek to represent Indigenous people, their histories, and the bloodshed upon which U.S. history is predicated.) Church’s painting was later reproduced as a print that was widely seen and fondly bought by many across the Union during the time of the Civil War.
Robert Frank, Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955
Robert Frank had frequently considered what constituted national identity in his documentary photography, and nowhere was this more the case than in his 1955 series “The Americans,” a defining body of work within the genre. Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey, the first work in the series and arguably its defining one, features two people posted at two separate windows, their figures separated by a brick wall. An American flag blows across one of the people, keeping that person’s face out of our view. It’s an image that leaves its viewer feeling unsettled—an effect no doubt enhanced by the off-kilter composition Frank chose for it.
This is a photograph where what we see is just as important as what we don’t. Its title refers to a parade, but we never get to look at what these people are watching. Though the atmosphere is supposedly celebratory, its mood is gloomy, even sour. Likewise, the faces of both people in this work are obscured, leaving their identities vague. Taken at a time when the U.S. was considered a prosperous place of equal opportunity, the photograph suggests that there will always be outsiders who don’t get to join in on the fun. That the flag flaps across one person’s view of this parade only further underlines the cracked sense of Americana felt in this picture.
Pope.L, Trinket, 2008
Few works on this list are bigger than Trinket, a 45-foot-long American flag that is subjected to wind from industrial-size fans. By turns awe-inspiring and sad, Trinket starts out as a gigantic flag in the form that we’re used to. Then, over the course of its exhibition, as it sways and flaps as a result of the wind moving through it, the flag tears itself apart. By the end of its run, this self-immolating flag exists as white and red stripes that blow independently of one another. Pope.L has described wanting to cut the flag down to size, in a sense, shearing it of the gloss and glory that typically accompanies it. Comparing the flag to a “doo-rag symbol for national booty,” Pope.L once told Artforum, “A trinket is a bauble, a trifle, shiny and worthless to whom? The American flag is a kind of wampum into our favorite darkness . . .”
Tseng Kwong Chi, East Meets West Manifesto, 1983
Tseng Kwong Chi, who was born in Hong Kong and based in New York until his death in 1990 from AIDS-related causes, often staged performances that seem to exist purely for his camera. He also typically wore a Mao suit, an emblem of Communist China at the time that made him stand out amid the New Yorkers he often pictured himself with. But this image, created in a studio environment, is a meta one: Tseng holds a shutter release cord, reminding us that we are seeing a picture being taken, and Tseng’s posture is stagey and overemphasized, even deliberately telegraphed. Adding to the artifice is the presence of the American and Chinese flags, with the latter one even acting as a backdrop of sorts—a part of the photographic apparatus itself. In heightening everything to a point where it verges on camp, Tseng underlines how nationality is a construct to be performed. As Tseng clicks the shutter closed, Americanness and Chineseness fuse in a complex mingling of fact and fiction.
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, I See Red: McFlag, 1996
The distinctly American tendency to constantly want more and more comes under the microscope in Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s 1996 painting I See Red: McFlag. In an allusion to another work on this list, Jasper Johns’s Flag (1954–55), this painting takes the form of an American flag whose stripes are lined with newspaper clippings. If Flag’s drippy paint and faded-looking stripes made the flag appear like a decaying object, McFlag pushes the political critique one step further. Smith, an enrolled Salish member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation, makes prominent usage of cut-out pieces of text that in her hands point to the United States’s history of colonialism. “THE RACE FOR BIGNESS,” reads one.
But this is not just any American flag: it’s a McFlag, according to the painting’s title, which suggests a fusion between an iconic piece of this country’s culture and a chain like McDonald’s. Smith is drawing a comparison between the colonialist quest for more land and the commercialist desire to own as many things as possible. As one symbol of capitalist manifest destiny, Smith has embedded the ears of Mickey Mouse, a famed Disney character, in the flag’s stripes—and even adorned her McFlag with Mickey-like ears of its own, courtesy of two speaker drivers that here perform no obvious function. She urges her viewer to resist both capitalism and colonialism by way of a clipping that reads “Don’t Get Malled!”
Gordon Parks, American Gothic, Washington, D.C., 1942
This iconic photograph was shot while Gordon Parks was working with the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal–era organization whose goal was to help the poor in rural areas. Among other things, the FSA is remembered for the photographers it brought on, including Parks and Dorothea Lange, for an initiative led by Roy Stryker. It was Stryker who had suggested to Parks that he shoot images of workers at the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the FSA, though it was Parks who imbued his subject, Ella Watson, with such a psychological depth and such resonant meaning. Here, Watson, who worked as a cleaner at the offices, poses for Parks before an American flag. The tools of her trade—a broom in the foreground and a mop in the background—are shown upside down, rendering them unusable, and she looks directly into Parks’s lens, piercingly staring back at viewers who may have otherwise ignored her presence.
The title Parks chose for this piece, American Gothic, alludes to another famed artwork, Grant Wood’s 1930 painting of the same name, which features a man who appears to be a farmer and his wife. That painting has been codified as a potent symbol of American values. Parks’s version of it, with a lone Black woman in lieu of a white couple, suggests the obverse of Wood’s subject matter: the true people who are the backbone of this nation yet who, at the time, often went unseen to the larger American public. By placing the flag so prominently behind Watson, Parks suggests that this may actually be a true image of Americana.
David Hammons, African-American Flag, 1990
Within David Hammons’s sly, forceful oeuvre, the American flag has been considered a fraught symbol in which to view the specter of racist violence. In his early body print works, Hammons pictures himself entangled in or restrained by the stars and stripes; in one memorable instance paying homage to the trial of the Black Panther Bobby Seale, he even used the American flag as a frame for his image, cutting out the middle and replacing it with his own bound-up form. African-American Flag is a different take on the subject, however, given that is is not red, white, and blue, but red, green, and black—the hues of Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African flag. Yet its form is neither the traditional stars-and-stripes composition nor the three parallel color bars of Garvey’s flag, but rather a merger of the two.
First exhibited at the now-defunct Museum Overholland in Amsterdam in 1990 in a show called “Black U.S.A.,” this flag has a title that was chosen carefully. Through a clever and deliberate word choice, it suggests that, for some Black communities living in the U.S., the American flag may not actually represent them. Moreover, Hammons has long been in dialogue with art-historical giants like Marcel Duchamp and Robert Rauschenberg, who took ready-made objects and recast them in an artistic context. Here, Hammons alludes to Jasper Johns’s Flag (also on this list), which presents the stars and stripes as a form of authorless abstraction. Hammons does something similar, tweaking Johns’s formula in both an homage and a subversion of a forerunner to whom he is indebted.
Yvonne Rainer, Trio A with American Flags, 1970
In this iteration of Yvonne Rainer’s famed dance piece Trio A, first conceived in 1966, six people performed in the nude with five-foot-long American flags tied to their necks. The dancers twist their arms, tap their toes, elegantly flail around. If their movements seem banal, this was Rainer’s point. Like others of her cohort in New York’s Judson Dance Theater group of the 1960s, Rainer invested herself in bringing everyday motions into the realm of dance, which had historically relied upon choreographies that were heavily stylized, and in some cases even relied on narratives and music. “No to virtuosity,” Rainer wrote in her famed 1965 “No Manifesto.” Trio A with American Flags, on the other hand, is beautifully quotidian and nearly silent, and could, it would seem, be enacted by anyone with enough practice.
While at first glance this piece hardly seems controversial—this rendition of Trio A does not denigrate the flag in the same way as other works on this list—it was intended as a protest. First performed at the 1970 exhibition “People’s Flag Show,” which was staged to decry the arrests of people who had desecrated the flag during the time of the Vietnam War, Trio A with American Flags was in Rainer’s view a commentary on censorship. “The Judson [People’s] Flag Show was about a protest against censorship and so I was thinking about the censorship of the body,” she once told the Paris Review. “My normal proclivities about exhibitionism were trumped by the political implications of the flag and nudity, combining those two elements.” Watching this performance, it is impossible to notice how the dancers’ breasts, genitals, and thighs periodically emerge behind the flags they wear. Their bodies cannot be contained, even as this nation attempts to constrain them.
Alfredo Jaar, A Logo for America, 1987
For a short period in 1987, advertisements played in New York’s Times Square alongside a brief message about American ethnocentrism. That quick video came courtesy of Alfredo Jaar, whose project A Logo for America was shown on a 20-by-40-foot Spectracolor screen courtesy of a storied Public Art Fund program known as “Messages to the Public.” The work is a series of animations that probe a frequent misunderstanding: the word “America” is used by people in the United States to describe where they live, whereas it actually refers to dozens of countries across multiple continents. At one point, a flag appears along with text superimposed over it: “THIS IS NOT AMERICA’S FLAG.” The Chilean-born artist’s work was provocative during its day—the artist once recalled that people questioned whether showing it was even legal. These days, however, A Logo for America is celebrated for its interrogation of this country’s values. It has been exhibited numerous times since then, both within the U.S. and outside it.
Cady Noland, This Piece Is Not Titled Yet, 1989
Perhaps no artist has had as sustained an engagement with the flag and other forms of Americana as Cady Noland, whose sinister sculptures allude to forms of violence innate to the nation’s history. For This Piece Is Not Titled Yet, which may be Noland’s most famous work, she arranged 1,100 Budweiser six packs, their cans adorned with designs evoking the American flag, around some scaffolding. Stacked in neat rows evoking a nonsensical form of storage, the beer cans are accompanied by a pair of handcuffs, hamburger buns, seat belts, and metal rods. (The installation was first exhibited at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh in 1989, and was later bought by the Rubell family, which now shows it at its private museum in Miami.)
Is this a cookout gone horribly wrong? A dysfunctional bunker constructed by a patriot? This exceptionally weird and deeply off-putting piece denies its viewer easy readings. Noland has slickly called the Budweiser cans a form of “flag manqué,” adding: “The cans represent the residue of deeply pathological thought on the part of their designers, and they are testimony to acute, economical use of suggestive strategy. They are tiny units of mastery. It is unnecessary to create anything through artistic reproduction, or even further thought, to represent units, reproduction, mass productions, serial repetition or pornographic status. The cans become an aimless accumulation that relates to the body’s digestive process, the beer having been ‘pissed away’ in an anonymous anticlimactic process.”
Dread Scott, What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?, 1988
This conceptual piece is one of the rare artworks in U.S. history to have been decried by a sitting President. “I don’t approve of it all,” George H. W. Bush said, sounding a similar sentiment being voiced at the time by conservatives across the country. Bush’s comments came as controversy What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? swept the nation, roiling both the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where it was first presented while Dread Scott (then known as Scott Tyler) was still a student, and the U.S. art scene writ large.
What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? drew such ire because it tackled a history of flag desecration in this country. The work consists of a photomontage of pictures depicting South Korean students burning the titular national emblem and the stars and stripes set over coffins, beneath which lies a book where viewers can record their responses and, on the floor, a flag that was produced in Taiwan. Scott reportedly purchased the flag that he exhibited for $3.95. To write down their reactions, viewers had to trod on the flag.
Because the piece was construed as encouraging flag desecration, it received protests from veterans, who rolled up the flag and later brought the work national attention. After the Senate almost entirely defunded the Art Institute of Chicago and made flag desecration illegal, Scott, artist Shawn Eichman, and Vietnam War veteran David Blalock took to the steps of the U.S. Capitol, where they burned flags. They faced the threat of being charged with a crime for doing so, and so they appealed the case to the Supreme Court. Ultimately, a decision handed down by the Court in United States v. Eichman (1990) found that flag desecration counted as a form of free speech, paving the way for future landmark works building on Scott’s legacy.
Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954–55
The origins of Jasper Johns’s most famous work lie in a dream that the artist had. In that vision, he saw himself painting an American flag—and so he went ahead and did just that. In his painting, done using an unusual technique called encaustic that involves using beeswax to fix his pigment, the flag is rendered atop newspapers, so that advertisements and display copy peek through his stars (48 of them, since Alaska and Hawaii weren’t states yet) and stripes. Johns’s flag has been described as a decidedly unpatriotic one, given the slightly weathered look of the paint on newsprint, although the artist himself has generally avoided pinning a political context to this work. Instead, Johns appears to have meant the flag as a conceptual gesture.
At the time this work was painted, the Abstract Expressionists were creating epic canvases using paint that was dripped, pulled, and thrown in non-representative modes. Their works, they believed, oozed a kind of originality unique to their makers. Johns, on the other hand, had no choice but to be unoriginal in painting the flag, a predetermined composition borrowed from everyday life. In taking this as his subject, Johns turned the flag into an abstraction, inspiring legions of artists to do the same in the decades that followed. Some artists, including Louise Lawler, Sturtevant, and AA Bronson, have even been so inspired by Flag as to appropriate images of it or to copy its composition for works riffing on the painting and its art historical significance.
Faith Ringgold, The American People Series #18: The Flag is Bleeding, 1967
Faith Ringgold has always been a clear-eyed observer of the American condition, but nowhere is her gaze more astute than in The American People Series #18: The Flag is Bleeding, a painting that is shockingly forthright about the bloodshed upon which this nation is built. In Ringgold’s painting, a smug white couple and a Black man lock arms. The Black man appears to smile as his one of his shoulders gushes blood, wetting a star that hangs nearby. Mysteriously, the man’s aggressor is not either of the people next to him but himself—he holds a pointy knife in his right hand.
Ringgold has long been interested in the motif of the American flag, which had been famously taken up by Johns before her. Still, she said she found Johns’s famed painting “incomplete” when it came to depicting the true realities of life in the U.S., and so she sought to unpack the flag’s real meaning in a variety of works, as well as with the 1970 exhibition “The People’s Flag Show,” a survey of artists’ various unpatriotic responses to the subject intended as a protest against the Vietnam War. She and the show’s other two organizers, Jean Toche and John Hendricks, were charged with flag desecration, though they were later acquitted.
Part of a trilogy of large-scale works that Ringgold termed murals, this painting was done in a style that she called Super Realism, whose sharply defined lines, she once wrote, were intended to make “what was happening to Black people in America… super-real.” And though the work may have succeeded into doing just that, few took notice until very recently, when, in 2021, the Glenstone Foundation gifted it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. When the work was acquired, Harry Cooper, a curator at the museum, said it was the most important work of contemporary art that the museum had added to its collection since it purchased a Jackson Pollock painting in 1976.