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Wanna See Jasper Johns Getting the Presidential Medal of Freedom?

Jasper Johns, one of 15 honorees receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom yesterday. (Former President George H.W. Bush, seated at the right, fiddles with his newly conferred medal.)

To see Pop artist Jasper Johns get medaled, go to the White House video and scroll to the 27-minute mark (right after the awarding of a medal to frail-looking former President George H.W. Bush).

Here’s what President Obama said yesterday afternoon about Johns (at the 6:08-minute mark):

It has been noted that Jasper Johns‘ work, playing off familiar images, have transfixed people around the world. Historians will tell you that he helped usher in the artistic movements that would define the latter half of the 20th century. Many would say he is one of the greatest artists of our time. And yet, of his own efforts he has simply said, “I’m just trying to find a way to make pictures.” Just trying to find a way to make pictures.

Like great artists before him, Jasper Johns pushed the boundaries of what art could be and challenged others to test their own assumptions. He didn’t do it for fame, he didn’t do it for success—although he earned both. As he said, “I assumed that everything would lead to complete failure, but I decided that it didn’t matter—that would be my life.” We are richer as a society because it was. And Jasper, you’ve turned out fine.

Here’s the official citation, intoned by a military aide at the 27-minute mark in the video, right before the President fastened the medal (with some difficulty) around the artist’s neck:

Bold and iconic, the work of Jasper Johns has left lasting impressions on countless Americans. With nontraditional materials and methods, he has explored themes of identity, perception and patriotism [emphasis added]. By asking us to reexamine the familiar, his work has sparked the minds of creative thinkers around the world. Jasper Johns’ innovative creations helped shape the Pop, Minimal and Conceptual art movements, and the United States honors him for his profound influence on generations of artists.


I’m not sure that’s exactly what the iconoclastic Johns had in mind when he appropriated the iconic image of the American flag.

Here’s how the late Kirk Varnedoe, former chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art (who organized MoMA’s 1996 Johns retrospective), described a Johns “Flag” in his final book, Pictures of Nothing—“coolly detached, diffident, suffused with irony—an impassive presentation of commonplace things.”

That’s more like it.


Johns, “Three Flags,” 1958, Whitney Museum

an ArtsJournal blog