Stars and Stripes in contemporary art

The American flag is one of the most powerful and provocative symbols in the world, it has been adopted and reinterpreted by numerous artists in their work.

Reintroduction of the American flag

Jasper Johns ‘Flag’ from 1983, sold for $36 million in Sotheby’s November 2014 Contemporary Art Evening Auction.

American flag artwork
Jasper Johns, Flags I. 1973

An American flag artwork worth at least $1 million, created by one of the world's most celebrated living artists, Jasper Johns, has been donated to the British Museum. The US-American sculptor, painter and graphic artist is a representative of Pop Art and Minimal Art. Flags I, from 1973 was printed in an edition of 65 pieces. Three other prints of the print have been auctioned for more than $1 million in the last few years. Johns, 90 years old, has used the American flag as a motif repeatedly since the 1950s. Johns told an interviewer that the idea occurred to him in a dream at the age of 24.

His flag pictures showed something unique in the art of painting. They brought the subject of the picture to coincide with the picture itself. Thus the question of the identity of picture and object arose in art theory, for the first time after Duchamp's work "Fountain", and was later taken up again by the conceptual artists.

With his flag and target pictures, he not only stimulated art theoretical discussions about identity, but also created true cult images.

Unites states Flag with the word think replacing the 50 Stars
William N. Copley, Untitled (Think/flag), 1967

William N. Copley's Untitled (Think/flag) is part of the portfolio, Artists and Writers Protest against the War in Vietnam 1967. Copley's Untitled (Think/flag), a departure from the artist's usual figurative language, was created during the turbulent time of political and racial struggles in the 1960s, which coincided with the escalating war in Vietnam and the increasing momentum of the civil rights movement.

Alternative view of the United States' flag

African-American Flag by David Hammons
African-American Flag, David Hammons, 1990

David Hammons' African-American Flag, 1990, a distinctive symbol charged with passion and humor, is one of the artist's iconic works of art. One of the most acknowledged works from his remarkable career, this particular piece was featured in the groundbreaking exhibition "Black USA" at Museum Overholland, Amsterdam, in 1990

The African American flag, launched in 1990, represents a defining moment in history, coinciding with the release of Nelson Mandela from Robben Island and the election of David Dinkins as the first and only black mayor of New York City. After receiving the award of the American Academy in Rome, Hammons worked in Europe when a encounter with acclaimed curator Christiaan Braun led to Hammons' decision to create this remarkable work of art for the exhibition Black USA at the prestigious Museum Overholland in Amsterdam. Hammons was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship "Genius Grant" the following year in appreciation of his career and contributions to African American cultural identity.

David Hammons African American Flag sold for $1,657,500 in November 2018.

Exploring fascinating dichotomy

Untitled American Flag, Keith Haring 1993
Untitled American Flag, Keith Haring 1988

This image formed an integral part of the Keith Haring Printbook 1993. It was created as a flyer for the "American Music Festival – New York City Ballet” 1988. Haring uses his characteristic cartoon characters and places them against the US flag by jumping, dancing and allowing them to plunge.

Symbolism behind the stars and stripes

American Flag modern art by Jean-Michel Basquiat
Untitled by Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1979-80

For many artists, the American flag symbolizes more than the meaningful symbolism behind their Stars and Stripes - whether it is nationalist pride or the American dream. For Jean-Michel Basquiat, the flag was a work of art in itself.

Ghostly vision

White tinted US Flag
AA Bronson, White Flag #1

Since the ancient times, waving a white flag represents surrender. Canadian-born artist AA Bronson has transformed this age-old symbol of capitulation into an emblem of human strength. Bronson reminds us of the horrible white veil of powdered concrete and glass that clouded the streets of New York in the days after 9/11, creating the appearance of the lethal film that covered the city where he lived and worked. With an aged brew of chalk, rabbit skin glue and honey, the artist has turned the vividness of the saturated colors of the U.S. flag into a haunting low. On first sight, Bronsonson's artwork seems to be a pale reference to Jasper John's celebrated 1953 monochrome Pop Art work. Looking more closely, it soon becomes apparent that in contrast to John's painting, which is based on a dream, Bronsonson's unsettlingly ghostly vision is all but real in the tangible blend of pain and insistence it summons.

Melted toy soldiers

Hundreds of green toy soldiers melted and painted with red, white and blue acrylic
American Flag (Toy Soldiers #12), 2002

Hundreds of green toy soldiers have been melted and painted with red, white and blue acrylic. They homogenise so perfectly that they transform into the flag. After volunteering at Ground Zero, where the towers of the World Trade Center collapsed on September 11, sculptor Dave Cole started sculpting flags from plastic toy soldiers. Patriotism is equated with soldiers, and here the blended figures evoke notions of collectiveness that are paramount in nationalist rhetoric. The inclusion of "toy" guns suggests the ongoing, destructive role of American anti-terrorism campaigns.

Comic-strip characteristics

U.S. Flag pop art by Roy Lichtenstein
Roy Lichtenstein, Forms In Space 1985

Lichtenstein calls a representation of the American flag "Shapes in Space", drawing attention to the fact that the human imagination is searching for symbolic interpretation - eager to perceive abstract forms as national symbols. The artist plays with the gap between what is depicted and what is merely perceived.

Reverberation of the Flag

Photo Collage with sandwich and cigarette box representing the U.S; Flag
Tom Wesselmann, Still Life Number 36, 1964

Tom Wesselmann's non-hierarchical approach to theme and technique is expressed in the huge sandwich and cigarette box in Still Life Number 36 (1964). He was convinced that everything could be art, even the ordinary objects that fill our bags and kitchen cupboards. Wesselmann began a series of large-format still lifes in 1962, containing scraps of discarded advertising posters, which he initially took out of trash cans, but later purchased directly from advertising agencies in pristine condition. At first, the larger-than-life proportions of the objects in Still Life Number 36 seem to represent a postwar celebration of the excess of commercial goods in American consumer culture. However, the collage and painted surface layers bring together mismatched portrayals of truth and create a tension in the composition, which Wesselmann called "reverberation".

Andy Warhol's Moonwalk

Andy Warhol Moonwalk Original silkscreen, 1987
Andy Warhol, Moonwalk 405, 1987

In "Moonwalk" Andy Warhol dedicated himself to one of America's most famous personalities - and to one of the most historic moments in human history. As a model for his typical image processing, he used the photo Neil Armstrong took of Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969.

This photo of an astronaut on the Earth's satellite became a symbol of the progress in science and technology and the American spirit of research. However, when comparing the scene of the commonly circulated photograph with Warhol's version, two differences become apparent. On the one hand, Warhol shows the scene mirror-inverted, and on the other hand the American flag is not visible on the right side in the original.

Here the assumption is that Warhol's work is a composition of two photographs of the moon. "Moonwalk" was to become part of a planned series of key moments in American television entitled "The History of TV". However, "Moonwalk" was the only theme from this series that Andy Warhol was able to complete shortly before his death in 1987.

Courage, pure intentions and high ideals

American Flag in displayed in a Building in Manhattan
Flag in the window, Jans Bock-Schroeder, 2009

Bock-Schroeder's artworks, music performances, films, photographs, paintings and collages create, arrange and recycle iconographic images from a vast cultural visual cache to comment on concepts of potency, creation and the circulation of ideas. "The flag in the window" was taken during a trip through the USA in 2009

50 Stars and 13 Stripes, the perfect components for art

The United States Code, the official transcript of federal law in the United States, contains precise instructions on how to deal with the National Flag. The Star-Spangled Banner should always be raised quickly, but lowered slowly and ceremonially. When lowering the flag, care should be taken to ensure that the flag does not touch the floor or other objects. For safekeeping, the banner should be carefully folded in precisely defined steps. In case of rain or stormy weather, the flag should not be displayed unless it is waving at half-mast for a given occasion. If the flag is faded or damaged, it should be replaced and discarded in a dignified manner. The pictorial presentation of a flag in a folded state should be avoided.


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