Robert Frank, a post-war émigré from Switzerland, came to look intensively at the political culture of the United States in a legendary cross-country trip in the mid-1950s, photographing the American landscape in a modern way—on the highway with a Guggenheim Fellowship, rather than through a WPA-sponsored relief project. It was a repressive, virulent Cold War environment in which the charge of being un-American was a symptom of prejudice, and source of fear.
On his funded trip Frank saw flags, lots of them, out west and closer to home. They are a recurrent motif in his collection of more than 27,000 Leica images from which he distilled his celebrated book of 83 photographs called The Americans. The book is unromantic and non-chronological, and continues to be groundbreaking for the history of photography.
The concealing, exclusionary nature of the American flag is the powerful message of Parade, Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955, which appears in Frank's book. National Gallery of Art curator Sarah Greenough celebrated the 50th anniversary of its publication with Looking in: Robert Frank’s The Americans (first published in 1959 in the U.S.) which examined The Americans' penetrating evocation of conditions of injustice and inequality, including its nativism. To paraphrase Greenough, Frank's project "reveals a people plagued by racism and ill-served by their politicians," and she notes as well his "seemingly intuitive, immediate, off-kilter style that was as innovative as its subjects."
Through the windows of adjacent apartments two women are glimpsed, partially obscured. The fearful watching and waiting women are observing movement in the space of the photographer, presumably a parade. A large American flag draped over the exterior of one apartment window acts as a segue from inside to outside. It obscures the marginalized individual at that window (ambiguously wearing a coat being buttoned or unbuttoned, suggesting coming inside or heading out) while suggesting the dominant collective lies in our space, outside of the photograph. What does it mean to participate only through looking on as Americans? We glimpse the private in the public with such subtlety in Frank, as he remains an astonishing exemplar for contemporaries today who express themselves, and the conflicted nature(s) of American society, through questioning again the symbolic content of the attention-grabbing flag. Author Jack Kerouac recognized Frank's importance, writing in his Introduction to The Americans in an exaggerated vernacular akin to Mark Twain's in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, "Anybody doesnt like these pitchers dont like potry, see?. . .Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem out of America onto film. . .To Robert Frank I now give this message: You got eyes."
In the same period, painter Jasper Johns composed his well-known Three Flags, 1958, though not as an overt political statement. Rather, he undertook subjects he described as "things the mind already knows" that in his early New York years he would begin to paint with obvious commitment (as would Warhol differently his Pop soup cans). Nevertheless, in going beyond the creative status quo, furthering the notion of what painting can be and do, a political character in Johns's work is unmistakable. The iconic flag became a major device for him. It was not only an American flag but a ready-made motif, a means for him to distance himself from design in order to practice art—as in this work to paint in encaustic, the ancient pigment suspended in wax technique, and so beautifully. "The painting of a flag is always about a flag, but it is no more about a flag than about a brushstroke, or about the physicality of paint," Johns said. Three Flags, each canvas mounted atop the other in reverse perspective, projects inversely. And each canvas rectangle images a flag, mimicking the proportion of a flag, eliminating any sense of within-ness or traditional spatial figure/ground. Like Robert Frank, in his own revolutionary way, Johns has us stop. He has us look.
With his early, novel, non-art subject and new pictorial strategy emphasizing symmetry and repetition— resisting volumetric relationality in painting—Johns contributed enormously to the next generation of artists (cf. especially Christopher Campbell and Michael Plante essays in Definitive Statements, American Art: 1964-66, Providence: Brown University, David Winton Bell Gallery, 1986). And, as in the work of artist Robert Rauschenberg, his close friend at that time, the boundaries between media, two- and three-dimensional, took on a new life in surrendering to each other, allowing for experimentation as in Rauschenberg's combines, work of the sort that he famously described as "acting in the gap between art and life."
Artist Faith Ringgold, the very same age as Jasper Johns, has spoken intensively, throughout her artistic life, about and through the flag, including having curated (with support from the ACLU and the NAACP) a group protest exhibition in 1970 through Judson Memorial Church in New York called People's Flag Show. In all capital letters, her poster demanded, "Artists, workers, students, women, Third World peoples, you are oppressed, what does the flag mean to you?" Part of her poster message urged, "Join the people's answer to the repressive U.S. govt. + state laws restricting use + display of the flag." During the Vietnam war and its period of racial violence, hers was a call for overturning the 1968 Federal Flag Desecration law that criminalized any mutilation or defiling, as well as walking on the flag. Ringgold's rallying cry (for which she was summarily arrested, with two others) eventually would triumph in the 1989 Supreme Court decision when it ruled, in regard to a case about flag burning, that the use of the flag was a protected form of free speech covered by the First Amendment.
Ringgold has long been an active dissenter, an artist early on discovering her feminism and protesting the Whitney Museum's discrimination against women artists and Black artists. Looking back at the Sixties, she has recalled, "Most artists were not paying attention. . .They were painting beautiful paintings abstractly but they were not telling the story of what was going on in America and I thought I wanted to be that person." "Courageous and visionary" is how MoMA curator Anne Umland accurately characterizes her.
Ringgold's own art has been at the center of controversies, including the recent one focusing on how her work should be contextualized appropriately. This occurred when the Museum of Modern Art re-opened in 2019 with an installation of an important new acquisition, the mural-scaled painting that seems to bring the viewer into the race riot it depicts, and that had appeared in Ringgold's first exhibition, American People Series #20: Die, 1967. Die at MoMA is placed in juxtaposition to Picasso's famed Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907, with other early breakthrough cubist works. The new installation has generated various critical misgivings about MoMA. Some complain it does not allow sufficient educational concentration on the Die coupling (where inspiration from Picasso's Guernica, 1937, that it no longer has on extended loan, would be more to the point), nor does it take the opportunity to reassess Picasso's treatment of race and gender in Les Demoiselles, his colonization and canonization. Nor is there prominent discussion of Ringgold's long term call for a "black aesthetic" (cf. among much later press the salient early post by then-Associate Curator Thomas J. Lax, "How Do Black Lives Matter in MoMA's Collection?" on MoMA's former blog, Inside/Out, July 9, 2016).
Included in this Progenitor section, the large and vibrant Freedom of Speech flag-based drawing from 1990 is, like the Frank and Johns examples, a classic work. It carries Ringgold's transcription of the First Amendment on its red stripes, and in the canton rectangle of stars, the dense names of people and institutions that stood for or opposed the freedoms pronounced by the amendment, from Harriet Tubman to Eldridge Cleaver, the John Birch Society, and NAACP. One of many flag-centric works by her, the drawing was commissioned for a poster by the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, marking the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. By the time it was made, Ringgold had built a career identified with activist work and artmaking across many media. "...I don't let those people tell me what to paint, we're talking about freedom of speech," Ringgold has proclaimed. That comment is direct and succinct, and an apt lead-in to this exhibition.
Out of the Fray focuses on the multivalent absorption that the powerful, emotionally loaded American flag can hold for visual artists. The flag has come increasingly to serve as a fraught symbol of democracy, and its freedoms. No artist undertakes its treatment lightly. Working with and through the image of the flag is an inevitable reckoning of an intensive sort that each artist seeks to realize in her or his own way.
Select exemplars identified with picturing the flag in their work —the late photographer Robert Frank, painter, printmaker and sculptor Jasper Johns, and painter, printmaker, narrative quiltmaker, mixed-media sculptor, and performance artist Faith Ringgold—are introduced separately. As progenitors, these essential sources of inspiration are represented digitally by single works in this exhibition. A sampling of their progeny, who practice many media, is suggested by the range of emerging and established artists whose own extraordinary works are assembled here as images. Individually and together the images reflect the passion with which an aesthetically, racially, ethnically, geographically diverse sampling of dedicated artists have spoken (out) through the flag, expressing dissent about America's inequities, injustices, or simply professed democratic values. The contemporary cohort of artists, like their progenitors, are political in never accepting the existing state of affairs, stylistically or otherwise.
Wherever we look this year, from corporate to rural America, the flag is ubiquitous. As the 2020 national election looms, the U.S. simultaneously experiences the turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic, expanding awareness of a racial and socioeconomic divide, educational implosion, and the daily struggles that require a collective response by a unified citizenry. The banner of unity that is the flag, long adopted (frequently with modifications) as a symbol of protest by the left, has been increasingly co-opted by the far right. Once again, as in prior moments of national upheaval, using the flag (e.g., as a textile that has been unraveled) has become a means for American artists to articulate and embody their politics/ allegiances.
The Art at Watson exhibition was intentionally scheduled slightly before the November 3 election. It was conceived as Out of the Fray, since a liberating change of course through the national election was anticipated. As the year has continued, we have all experienced or participated in widespread public actions responding to overt, escalating assaults on democratic values. Many have at long last confronted a historically embedded racism and classism and recognized the unceasing growth of a precariat. Social protests have urged that the nation face up to its (in)actions, transform them for the national good, and heal. Undeniably, ours has been a fraying Union. The flag as a banner conceptually seems to wave back and forth between the intellectually certain (episteme) and subjectively held opinion (doxa). [For an elaborated discussion of these terms see [Chicago] Nordquist, Richard. "Episteme in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/episteme-rhetoric-term-1690665 (accessed July 6, 2020)]. The flag insistently punctuates our daily lives now, as we debate democracy. It looms large, “flagging” opposing political allegiances and energies, often through sheer physical scale. The size of the flag installed above the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street is gigantic in announcing American exceptionalism, and the inflated, essentially menacing rows of flags looming behind contestants in various campaign appearances conjure the political rallies in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941), or Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda film, Triumph of the Will (1935).
Among the contemporary artists whose works are brought together in this curated exhibition are those who present the epic nature of the flag as a means to broadcast questions it may be said to demand, or to portend. Untitled (Questions), 1990/2018, by Barbara Kruger has occupied the entire length of the exterior of The Geffen Contemporary at L.A. MOCA, measuring 30 by 191 feet, permitting a direct confrontation with nine bold, all-capped questions that read as the flag's white stripes, from WHO IS BEYOND THE LAW? through WHO SALUTES LONGEST? to WHO LAUGHS LAST?. In its strident urban scale, Kruger's painted mural combines visual, textual, and even aural dimensions; we seem to hear it as we see and read it. The 1990 work was re-created for this public-facing wall of the museum in 2018 at the request of its director and curator in advance of the election, in concert with the museum's voter registration efforts.
Across the country, in the Northeast, a large-scale project by Dave Cole called Knitting Machine was performed at MASS MoCA on July 4, 2005, using 20-foot-long custom needles and excavation equipment from John Deere, the Illinois company widely known since the early 19th century. Among its gender-bending implications, and "good-natured irreverence," to quote the artist, the improbable, nearly outlandish accomplishment of knitting with excavators arguably highlights the positive results of concerted, collective labor. To this curator it suggests as well the extravagant concentration required to replicate, through its enlarging, the very weight of the loaded symbolism of the flag, including American manufacture's debatable role in sustaining democracy. The knitting event took place in an outdoor courtyard within the vast complex of the kunsthalle. Appropriately for Cole, MASS MoCA inhabits the former site of Arnold Print Works, regarded as one of the world's leading manufacturers of printed textiles. In fact, New York gallerist Kristen Dodge has deftly described Cole's extraordinary American Flag (Lead), also featured in the current exhibition, as "speaking the vocabulary of textiles with the voice of heavy industry."
Several Fray artists choose the medium of knitting as critique, and though knitting far less monumentally than Cole, they invert the sense of a tame domestic sphere to become intrepid political activists. Fiber artists Adrienne Sloane and Elizabeth Duffy are both unravelers. Sloane planned that her wall-mounted knitted flag, created (once the electoral college vote had been decided) in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, would be unraveled by her as an ongoing performance in various venues for the duration of this presidency. Accordingly, as she unraveled the hand-knit cotton and other fabrics incrementally, a copy of the Constitution that she had printed on silk was revealed on the wall behind. It has taken Sloane nearly four years to achieve a near complete unraveling, which she did not anticipate—the entire length of the term. Her unraveled metaphor is unequivocal, as is her second flag, the showstopping lynching-referencing work called At the End of My Rope, 2019, fiber and rope. This is how life today has made her feel, Sloane confides meaningfully. Bold in her artistry, she is restrained in her commentary, describing the work literally as "a deconstructed knit flag hanging limply from a noose."
In parallel spirit, if hardly scale, fiber artist Elizabeth Duffy parlays the hard shiny lapel pin of a waving American flag, the American politician's daily wardrobe pledge of allegiance, into what feels is like its more accurate inverse, a frayed flag. Unraveling, Suit with Lapel Pin is an intentionally blurred photographic image on fabric, combined with evidence of the processings of a pulled-apart warp and weft, then collaged onto a man’s suit lapel. Despite the emphatic fraying, Duffy remains a hopeful citizen. She recognizes the promise of reconstituting or re-making in her unraveling, even as the flag is reduced to threads, nearly shredded, its wearer’s loyalty made questionable. Duffy has been encouraged in her optimism by the personal, reflective podcast of New York Times Magazine journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones that Duffy cites in her commentary. Hannah-Jones writes of being mystified by her Mississippi-born father, with his segregated background, mistreatment by the military, and more, since he insisted on flying an always pristine American flag on their lawn. Hannah-Jones later realized the right to vote, no matter what your race—the Fifteenth Amendment (ratified 1870)—is what drove her father's prideful passion for the flag.
Love of the unique expressiveness of worn vintage cloth that is a flag is a shared stimulus for Janie Cohen, a self-described rogue stitcher, for Liz Collins and Gary Graham, designers who worked in temporary partnership over their Pride Dress, and also again for Dave Cole, who salvaged an obsolete flag in tatters, a found object that he'd recently discovered in the indignity of a landfill, and has had preserved, with conservation framing. Cole's Landfill Flag #1 is named simply and directly for its provenance. It is an assisted readymade, poignant in its fragility, and remarkably resembles the original, now fragmentary Star-Spangled Banner flag in the Smithsonian, the 1813 commission to Mary Pickersgill, who had sewn that enormous flag with 13-year-old Grace Wisher, her indentured servant.
In contrast to Cole, Janie Cohen mines personal memories with her found flag, in this instance using the symbol of the raised fist encountered in her college years, before the advent of Black Lives Matter, notably used by the Black Power movement and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The fist persists as a sign of protest in the face of nationalistic, rightist flag carriers, then as now. Cohen quotes it in her hand-stitched red thread within the fabric of a conceptually and materially rich work, We Hold These Truths, an early 20th-century flag shown twirled on a majorette's baton. The baton conjures the image of a retro marching band performer supporting the soft vintage flag that appears, in contrast, freshly animated in vigorous protest against sexism, inequity, and exclusion, conjoining present and past.
The initial words of the famous second sentence of the Declaration of Independence are this flag's title, a now acerbic declaration of equality appearing along the vertical stripe margin at left. As historian Heather Cox Richardson recently wrote in her Letters from an American Substack newsletter (8/27/20), "The men who founded our government … took the radical step of founding a nation on the idea that all men are created equal … They were blind to things they should have seen, of course—their "all men" excluded men of color and women—but the principle of equality before the law was a radical new idea in Western history." Cohen admits of historical continuity while she subtly destabilizes and reconstrues tradition, protesting notions of exclusivity. Like Cole's landfill flag, her approach to making includes the curatorial/preservation instinct evident in her tender re-working of the cherished flag cloth, a principled avoidance of irreversible damage.
Collins and Graham, both renowned textile artists, formed a creative partnership in 2000 to make a dress called Pride, part of their "Seven Deadly Sins" series, now in the RISD Museum collection. The flag dress is sensuous in the Cohen mode, its material composed of several luxurious vintage American flags that the artists were generously gifted, and which symbolism they energetically deconstructed through their design. The joint adventure included insisting that the flag fabric drag on the ground as evidence of "patriotism gone awry," as Collins has remarked. Retrospectively, she sees in its sartorial expression "the anger and distress and destruction and desperation and reconstruction and pasting back together—that is happening on an ongoing basis in our time." Graham recognizes their collaborative design project as "a materialized sharing of ideas" that is exciting yet elusive in the commercial design field. The project accords as well with his personal, overarching commitment to history as a living experience. Collins further emphasizes that though the flags become dress fabric, Pride Dress is meant as a subversive questioning of the labor and manufacture of apparel.
Artist Tasha Dougé, a self-professed cultural vigilante of Haitian descent, created a significant flag work before the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia that she has come to name Justice. The antithesis of a readymade, Justice is an astonishing Black American flag in black and grey stripes, threaded with straight, repurposed needles from synthetic hair, chicken wire and cotton. Mystically, the artist heard her ancestors urge her on during the process of making Justice manifest. Dougé's Justice is heavy, but portable. She has shrouded Justice while moving her, yet the flag figure has cloaked Dougé in return, in many public protests and readings that she has given. Dougé remains the chronicler of a narrative that has been overlooked, she has said, yet Justice's gendered character, as avatar of the artist, has only grown in importance over the last four years. Dougé's Rhode to Brown video is the result of the inquisitive, research-oriented artist's inspired notion to examine the past of Brown University, and to learn of the role of the slave trade that had been such a source of affluence in Rhode Island's history. She brings Justice to the Rhode Island table in this exhibition, creating a video for Out of the Fray in the spirit of James Baldwin's analysis, as he wrote in his book No Name in the Street (1972),
Well, if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected. . .and listens to their testimony. Ask any Mexican, any Puerto Rican, any black man, any poor person—ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know, not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it. It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.
Dougé's video highlights some of the strains that cause us still to be frayed, as well as the patterns that keep us woven into racism.
The body itself becomes the site for the flag in the constructed photograph by Vanessa Leroy, a precocious emerging artist. Emulating the American flag's stars and stripes, here roughly painted directly on a bare-chested Black youth's torso, Leroy has the diptych image speak in close proximity to the viewer, confrontationally, expressing her anger and grief over experiences with racism. Cropping the youthful figure to a torso indicates the dehumanizing facelessness that accompanies oppression. The boy appears proudly to bear on his body the signage of the flag in one image, while in the second his large hands are shown determinedly scraping it off, away from his skin, pushing on through the frustration of removal. Leroy's Altar of Stars, the title adopted from a poem by Nayyirah Waheed, recognizes and mourns the profound meaningless sacrifice of countless young Black men.
The artists Danielle and Kevin McCoy, known together as WORK/PLAY, creatively and keenly "explore racial inequality, erasure, and redacted histories." Based in St. Louis, they live and work very close to Ferguson, Missouri, where the 2014 Michael Brown shooting and subsequent "unrest" galvanized the nascent Black Lives Matter movement. WORK/PLAY has a broad reach historically to the present day, and brings strong graphic design skills into play through provocative hybrid media. The two flags reproduced for this exhibition refer to diverse moments in time. One is the long period of enslavement (Statelessness) before citizenship was actualized, indicated by the pole-mounted, suspended, black-inked flag with African patterns (see the detail) subtly integrated in its stripes. Their wall-mounted flag is named Everything is ALT Right. Its title typeface emulates Nazi-era style as the artists pointedly question the ambiguous allegiance and reassurance of law enforcement and many politicians, originally in the period of the Charlottesville and Ferguson deaths. Everything is ALT Right provocatively asks whether law enforcement and politicians' support lies with the principles of the U.S. or with notions of the Far Right, or, perhaps, to both.
In contrast to the artists who create work from a variety of three-dimensional media, Out of the Fray also features two contemporary artists who make drawings. Neither Jessica Deane Rosner nor Edwin Schlossberg draws flags per se, but each uses the flag as inspiration and reference for remarkable work.
The red, white, and blue American Slinky by Jessica Deane Rosner is modestly, even intimately scaled. Beginning with a mechanically drawn element for the springy helical Slinky toy, then proceeding geometrically freehand, places the artist's hand at the conceptual center of the work, as she has emphasized. Straightaway, she defamiliarizes us from a customary association with the Slinky, altering our perception to recognize her intention. Ever-imperfect geometry and even audacity in drawing the stilled Slinky is, to paraphrase Rosner, a "betrayal of my humanity that gives the work its complexity." Yet it is neither mimetic perfection nor stasis that Rosner is after as much as seeing the imperfections in her drawing disclosed. The “Americanness” of this Slinky goes beyond its patriotic coloration to ideas of misrepresentation and exclusion, such as our failure to form a more perfect Union, in contrast to the stated intention of the Constitution. Rosner deliberately exposes her less-than-perfect drawing as traces of our time, evidence of a tumultuous politics that demands to be revealed to those who will come after, and need to know. The honesty that she calls for is an especially important value as we head toward a significant and defining national election.
United States of America by Edwin Schlossberg is very different in character as an illustrated, four-part original poem, one for each sheet of paper and for each word. In addition to ink, pencil, and crayon, it integrates a changeable color paint, dependent on ambient or applied temperature, called Liquid Crystal. Such experimental practice is not unusual for Schlossberg. His interdisciplinary PhD combined the study of science and English and American literature. Today, his long-term visual art practice is perhaps less widely known than his large-scale installation experience design studio, ESI, that most recently completed the Statue of Liberty Museum. Schlossberg's limited edition first book project, created for the renowned Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) in its still early years, is memorably titled Wordswordswords (1968), with a cover etching (preface) made by Robert Rauschenberg. In fact Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were influential early friends and mentors. Johns was a voracious reader and Rauschenberg involved in dance and music, Schlossberg recalled in a 2015 interview in Japan. "None of the artists I think are really great only made art. They always were engaged in the world in some other way," and in the same interview he insisted self-knowingly, "It's always about the doing of things and the making of things" that matters.
The perspicacious United States Of America unfurls itself flaglike across separate sheets of paper, with Schlossberg's poetry as the engine for the composition. (A full transcription is given in this online catalogue.) Each separate sheet's correspondent design (red/white/blue/pink) generated by a poem connected to each constituent word, comprises the U.S.A. title, including the article "Of." Of partially reads,
We were dreamers of things
but dreams are changing
we dream of each other now
we dream of dreaming
The drawing called America reminds us of how much our current moment was presaged by the artist:
Our power comes through living as an entity
supporting each possibility that does not deny/destroy any other
and appropriately to conclude these Curator's Remarks, quoting its final, gripping, line,
We are the experiment and experimenters.
J. Tolnick Champa, August 2020