The British Museum Acquires A Jasper Johns Flag Print Worth $1M

The print Flags I (1973) by American Neo-Dadaist artist Jasper Johns was donated to the British Museum days before the American election.

Nov 1, 2020By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
Flags I, Jasper Johns, 1973, British Museum; The British Museum’s great court, photo by Biker Jun, via Flickr.

A print by the famous painter of American flags, Jasper Johns, has reached the British Museum just a few days before the 2020 American elections.

Jasper Johns’ Flags I (1973) belonged to New York-based collectors Johanna and Leslie Garfield who decided to donate it to the museum.

The print is worth at least $1 million making it one of the most expensive prints in the British Museum’s collection.

The museum’s staff have welcomed the new acquisition. Catherine Daunt, curator of modern and contemporary art at said about the print:

“It is beautiful, complex and technically a great achievement. We now have 16 works by Johns in the collection, all of which are outstanding in their own way, but visually this is undoubtedly the most spectacular.”

Johns’ Flags I At The British Museum

Flags I, Jasper Johns, 1973, British Museum

This is not the first time the British Museum accommodates Jasper Johns Flags I. The print was featured in the 2017 exhibition American Dream. Flags I played a central role in the exhibition and was even used for the cover of its catalog.

According to the British Museum, Jasper Johns:

“made this print at Universal Limited Art Editions on Long Island, New York, using 15 colours and 30 different screens. A screened layer of glossy varnish distinguishes the flag on the right from the matt flag on the left. It echoes the effect of a painting that he made in the same year, which paired a flag painted in oil paint with one in the wax-based medium encaustic.”

Flags I (1973) has an estimated worth of over $1 million. In 2016 Christie’s sold one impression of the print for $1.6 million. Other impressions have fetched more than $1 million too. The good quality of the Jasper Johns flag in the British Museum means that its value should be no less than $1 million.

The Meaning Of The American Flag

Flag, Jasper Johns, 1954, Museum of Modern Art

This is not Johns’ only attempt at experimenting with the American flag. In fact, this has been a recurring theme in his art since his first flag in 1954.

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Johns claims that he got the idea to draw flags from a dream in the same year. As he has said, the flag for him represents something that is ‘often seen and not looked at’.

The symbolism is deeper than it first appears. In what seems like a postmodern thought experiment, Jaspers Johns’ flags invite us to think if they are painted flags or flag paintings. When he was asked, Johns said that the work was both.

Furthermore, each viewer gets a different reading of the object. For some it might represent freedom or patriotism and for others imperialism.

Johns leaves the question unanswered on purpose. In contrast to other artists who sought new ways of expressing ideas, Johns attempted to destroy the meaning of well-established truths. In this case, he took a symbol he considered familiar and clear, the American flag, and removed it from its context.

Who Is Jasper Johns?

Painting With Two Balls I, Jasper Johns, 1960, via Christie’s

Jasper Johns (1930- ) is an American draughtsman, printmaker, and sculptor associated with abstract expressionism, pop art, and neo-dadaism.

He was born in 1930 in Augusta Georgia and attended three semesters at the University of South Carolina. Johns served in the Korean War until 1953. Thereafter he moved to New York and became good friends with the artist Robert Rauschenberg.

In 1954 he painted his first flag and in 1955 he made the Target with four faces which was a unique merging of sculpture and canvas.

As he grew, he rose into a pioneer of a dadaist resurgence in New York which is now described as neo-dadaism.

With years, his artistic style evolved along with his fame. An important role in making him known to the American and international scene also played the Leo Castelli gallery.

Johns is lucky to have seen his name widely celebrated. His works sell for millions while he has received numerous awards and honors. In 2018, the New York Times called him the United States’ “foremost living artist”. Johns is also often considered to be amongst the top printmakers of all times next to artists like Durer, Rembrandt, Picasso, and others.

In 2010 one Jasper Johns flag reportedly sold for an astonishing $110 million.

Author Image

By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA). Antonis is a senior staff member at TheCollector, managing the Archaeology and Ancient History department. In his spare time, he publishes articles on his specialty.