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Four

T h e T r u s ti n g A r ti s t

On a February afternoon in 2011 in Washington, D.C., Jasper Johns

sat still in his chair on the dais in the East Room of the White House
alongside notables such as poet Maya Angelou, basketball legend Bill
Russell, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and billionaire investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett. Barack Obama had just placed the Presidential Medal of Freedom around the neck of one of his predecessors,
George Herbert Walker Bush, to thunderous and sustained applause,
when the emcee called Johns to the fore. The artist, smartly dressed
in a dark suit and matching polka-dotted tie, rose from his seat and
stood next to the blue podium bearing the presidential seal as Obama
stood behind him holding the white-enamel, star-shaped medal that
would soon be presented to him. Johnsthe first painter or sculptor to be awarded the medal in 34 yearssmiled as the emcee read
aloud: 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. By asking us to reexamine the familiar, his work has sparked the
minds of creative thinkers around the world. Jasper Johns innovative

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creations helped shape the pop, minimal and conceptual art movements, and the United States honors him for his profound influence
on generations of artists.1
The awarding of the Medal of Freedom to Johns was certainly
apt. His influence, especially on American artists, is profound, and
his body of work is widely respected. And the reference to his exploration of the theme of patriotism was especially significant. In 1954,
he painted his first American flag, and the star-spangled banner became the image with which the artist has become most commonly
connected. One night I dreamed that I painted a large American
flag, he recalls, and the next morning I got up and I went out and
bought the materials to begin it. He came home with three canvases,
plywood for mounting them, newspaper that he cut into strips, and
encaustic paint. This choice in pigment gives the painting a texture
that, coupled with the barely discernible strips of newsprint, begs for
closer inspection by the viewer.2
The painting was completed at a time in Johnss career during
which he was experimenting with universally recognizable symbols:
flags, targets, numbers, and letters.3 As Museum of Modern Art curator Anne Umland pointed out, the subject matter was not a statement
of blind patriotism or allegiance, but it did carry political overtones:
Underneath the pigment are strips of collaged newspapers. And
when you really begin to look at these you can see that there are
dates that are recognizable [and] they allow us to locate this painting,
this flag, this timeless symbol of our nation within a very particular
context, the 1950s in America, which is right in the midst of the McCarthy era and the beginning of the Cold War, when symbols such
as the flag would have had a very particular and potent valence.4
Johnss own comment on the work supports Umlands theory. He
has said of the paintings creation, Well, it certainly wasnt out of
patriotism. It was about something you see from out of the side of

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your eye and you recognize it as what it is without really seeing it. It
is the thing itself, but theres also something else there. However, he
remains somewhat coy about the true meaning of the work. I dont
think I want to describe it.... Its probably shifted its meaning over
time.5 Perhaps most fittingly, the Whitney Museum of American
Art describes it as a work that flatters or honors the nation without
genuflection.6 The price tag for the work is undeniably high: a version of Flag offered at auction by Christies in the fall of 2014 was
listed with an estimate of $15$20 million, or about $100,000 per
square inch.7
Another Flagthis time a sculpture made in 1960 by Johns
led to an earlier connection between the artist and the White House
in the 1960s, when gallery owner Leo Castelli, who gave Johns his
first one-man show, brought then president John F. Kennedy the
bronze on Independence Day. From Johnss view, the gesture wasnt
consistent with his vision. I thought it was the tackiest thing Id ever
seen, Johns recalled.8 The misstep by Castelli did not damage the
relationship between the pair. In fact, they would go on to forge a
decades-long association.
Cle arly, Jasper Johnss connection

to art depicting the American

flag is as indelible as Edgar Degass connection to ballerinas or Andy


Warhols to cans of Campbells Soup. And regardless of the message
of the painting, the image of the most iconic president of the twentieth century posing with one of his sculptures certainly did not hurt
the value and importance of Flag.
The original 1960 sculpted metal version of Flag was given by
Johns to his partner Robert Rauschenberg upon completion.9 Then,
in the early 1960s, Johns had bronze sculptures of the work made by
taking a mold of the surface of his painting, pouring plaster into the
mold, and then removing the plaster, leaving him with a positive of

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the paintings surface. He gave the positive of the surface to a foundry
where a process called sand casting was used to make copies. Johns
had the foundry create four bronze sculptures of Flag.
The four sculptures went very separate ways. There was the one
given to President Kennedy by Castelli, which remains in the possession of Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, and Johns kept one himself.
A third was acquired by financier and art collector Joseph Hirshhorn
and is currently on display at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture
Garden in Washington, D.C.one of the top modern art museums
in the United States. The fourth resides with the Art Institute of
Chicago thanks to a bequest of Katharine Kuh, the art critic, curator,
and author who also owned the eponymous Chicago gallery where
she supported a large number of emerging modern artists.
In the 1980s, Johns decided to make additional sculptures based
on the original sculpted metal work he gave to Rauschenberg, and
for this project he turned to Vanessa Hoheb. Hoheb grew up in her
fathers sculpture studio, beginning her formal apprenticeship when
she was just 16. In those early years she gained experience working
on pieces for Johns and other leading artists, including Willem de
Kooning, Frederick Hart, and Isamu Noguchi. Perhaps most notably, at around the time Johns approached her, she was leading the
five-member team charged with restoring the skin of the Statue of
Liberty.10 Hohebs approach was completely different, said Johns,
because she used a negative mold in which metal was poured to make
the positive. In the earlier sand casting process, the positive mold
was pressed into earth and the earth filled with metal to make the
sculpture.11 One other thing about the Hoheb version that made it
different from the earlier sculptures was the fact that hers included
the frame that was around the original; earlier versions did not.
Johnss project was not complete with the Hoheb mold. He then
took it to the Polich Tallix fine art foundry in upstate New York

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around 1987 to make a silver cast of Flag. Polich Tallix has a long
tradition of working with the whos who of artists, including de
Kooning, Urs Fischer, Jeff Koons, Roy Lichtenstein, and Alexander
Calderthe last sculptor to win the Presidential Medal of Freedom
before Johns. Upon completion at Polich Tallix, Johns elected to
keep the silver cast in his home in New York.
In 1990, Johns had more plans for Flag. This time he turned
to Brian Ramnarine, an migr from Guyana and a trusted artisan
with whom he had worked a number of times before, to make a
wax positive in his silver mold. Ramnarine, who operated Empire
Bronze in New York and whose work was considered by Johns to
be excellent, had handled casts for numerous of Johnss small sculptures in the past. Johnss instructions to Ramnarine were simple:
he told him to make only a wax impressionnot an actual metal
sculptureof Flag. At the time, Johns thought he might have his
sculpture cast in gold, and wanted to investigate how much metal
would be needed and how expensive it would be, thus the direction
to Ramnarine to make only a wax figure. Ramnarine obliged and
produced the 1 11 2 foot wax sculpture, which Johns refrigerated
in his home on upscale East 63rd Street in Manhattan. Though
Johns paid him in full, in cash, Ramnarine failed to return the mold
from which he made the wax sculpture. Eager to get his important
original mold back, Johns directed a longtime member of his staff,
James Meyer, to retrieve it from Ramnarines foundry. Meyer came
back empty-handed.
Years later, Jasper Johns paid a visit to Paige Tooker at New Foundry

New York Inc. and gave her the Ramnarine-made wax mold with a
request to make a new cast of Flag in white bronze. While Tooker is
certainly a very skilled craftsperson, Johnss reasons for not returning to Ramnarine with the wax mold he had made were based on

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