Star-spangled, but not so flawless

Essay: At first she was more likely to waive than wave the flag. But then this painting caught her attention.

October 03, 2001|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK - This city's new wave of flag-bearers has turned it into an endless Fourth of July for the new age. Stars-and-stripes power has invigorated those struck with a sudden love of country and helped soothe those who have lost loved ones.

Still, I was showing no symptoms of flag fever.

When I mentioned to friends that seeing people so fervently unite behind a symbol, no matter what the cause, made me shudder slightly with fears of group-think and near-nationalism, it made them even more uncomfortable. But I can't will tears to well up. Was there something wrong with me? Did that make me a horrible person? House pets were showing more pride than I was. At a recent vigil, a bull dog with a flag strapped to its rump bounded past me. The wave in its wiggle made me smile. It was cute and creative.

But it wasn't until last week that I saw an Old Glory that I wanted to wave. So I bought a flag. Well, I bought a picture of a flag. OK, I bought a picture of a picture of a flag.

I am the proud owner of a poster of Jasper Johns' Flag (1954-1955). When I saw the original on a recent visit to the Museum of Modern Art, the bold, textured collage suddenly illuminated America for me and focused my feelings.

Flag hangs on its own, free of pomp, without candles encircling it, President Bush or Oprah emoting in front of it. It doesn't imply "better" or "right" or "pure."

A refreshing revelation, given that directly outside MOMA, and all over the city, vendors are seducing those looking to feed their shaken souls with some memento, shoddy little flag pins, tasteless T-shirts featuring the Twin Towers amid smoke and other exploitative images. Many of these tacky offerings are both politically and even grammatically incorrect, like the slogan that read, "We,re Still Standing."

At the museum, it was nice to see such a quietly powerful and challenging statement enveloped in silence, and even nicer to see museumgoers, many of whom were also pleasantly surprised to see Flag, get excited, pause thoughtfully and activate their all-American art appreciation.

"It's complex, it's imperfect, yet it conveys a sense of strength," says Dan Ramer, 47, who was visiting with his wife Kimberly from Ohio.

"It's like the fabric of our country," says Indianapolis retiree Susan Lueck. "We're made of so many different backgrounds." Lueck isn't a patriotism novice. She and her husband have been flying a full-size American flag outside their home everyday for 30 years.

Flag is one man's modification of a familiar (and now especially significant) symbol for his personal and artistic rebirth. As the story goes, a 24-year-old Johns destroyed all the work he'd done up until then, and shortly after, had a dream that he was painting the American flag. That unconscious moment inspired this work and his many other flag images to follow. Johns used modest materials for Flag, which is essentially a collage. The oil, fabric and newspaper, mounted on a sturdy base of plywood, are sealed together with encaustic, a blend of pigment and molten wax that creates a rough, bumpy surface but is instrumental in holding all the elements together.

Flag is not a clean, bright, flawless icon. The blue isn't true, the red borders on orange, and the white is graying and mature. Smears and fingerprints warm it up with a homemade touch. In some parts, the paint is thick and unyielding, while a few centimeters over, you can see right through it. Flag blends and clusters, drips and fades in and out across a make-shift canvas.

It's difficult to discern what the underlying newspaper articles are about, since only partial headlines, words and phrases are visible. In that way, it obscures history, suggesting there may be something under the surface we're not meant to see. And there are definitely elements of our country's history we'd rather not face head-on. But here and there, words and phrases eerily float to the surface: "New York City" and "Suffering From Shock." And there's levity in the form of an unidentifiable cartoon panel, reminding us not to lose our laughter.

The location of the piece in the museum adds another dimension. It hangs mere feet from Picasso's Charnel House. The grisly gray, white and black Guernica-like image, with twisted death and devastation screaming from the canvas, uncomfortably stirs up thoughts of the maiming of lower Manhattan.

Flag transcends oversimplification and tendencies toward national or moral superiority. The flag means different things to different Americans. Our country isn't simple, and neither are our symbols.

Flag was a new beginning for Johns, and out of it came a celebrated, thought-provoking career. He rethought our supreme symbol. And now, we have to rethink the way we live, the way we fight, and just about everything else, while keeping the faith that it will eventually lead to peace and recovery.

America is undeniably altered. And with time, the alterations will become woven in, creating a changed image. And there is no reason why the image can't stay as beautiful, meaningful and strong as the artfully altered flag hanging confidently and reassuringly on an art museum wall.

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