Jasper Johns moved to New York in the summer of 1953. Shortly after, he became acquainted with a group of artists forging their own path in the art world, including Robert Rauschenberg, with whom Johns had a romantic and creative relationship; the composer John Cage; and Cage’s partner, the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. In late fall 1954, Johns made his own radical new start. He destroyed all his work still in his possession—deciding in that moment that he would no longer try to be an artist, he would simply be one.
Johns began to paint his first flag soon after. “One night I dreamed that I painted a large American flag, and the next morning I got up and I went out and bought the materials to begin it. And I did.” The twenty-four-year-old artist crafted the stars and stripes on a bedsheet with collaged bits of newspaper, at first using enamel paint, which he subsequently abandoned for encaustic, a mixture of wax and pigment that dries quickly and leaves each brushstroke distinct.
Even more important than the adoption of encaustic as his signature medium was the paradoxical relationship established between the depicted image and the materials and techniques used in its composition. Johns had dreamt, tellingly, that he painted a flag, not that he made a painting of one. Flag would soon determine the public reception of his work and profoundly shift the course of art history. Reflecting on this formative moment, Johns later remarked, “There was a change in my spirit, in my thought and my work, as well as some doubt and terror.”