From the wall frescoes of ancient Rome to the trompe-l’oeil ceiling murals of Renaissance Europe, optical illusions have been a popular trend in visual art for ages.
Artists like Victor Vasarely and M.C. Escher revamped the way artists fool the eye in the 20th century. Perhaps inspired by the revitalized interest in optics, Jasper Johns created an image that toys with our perception of color.
In the work, titled Flag (Moratorium), Johns presents the United States flag with pink, green, and black, replacing the traditional stars and stripes palette. The viewer is invited to stare at the small white dot in the center of the flag for 30 seconds, then avert their gaze to a white wall where they will see the same flag in its original red, white, and blue. This phenomenon, known as a negative afterimage, is caused by stimulation of the cells that carry signals between the eyes and the brain. Johns’ artwork is often layered — whether literally with material or metaphorically with meaning — and Flag (Moratorium) takes this layering a step further, with a covert optical illusion hiding just beneath the surface.
Johns’ flag prints are among his most well-known and iconic works. He first began exploring the American flag as a subject in the mid-1950s and the flag became a recurring motif in his art, representing various themes and concepts. The flag prints emerged during a time when abstract expressionism dominated the art scene. Johns’ use of familiar imagery, like the flag, challenged the prevailing ideas of what art could be. By appropriating this national symbol, Johns questioned the boundaries between art and everyday objects, inviting viewers to reconsider their own perceptions and interpretations.
The flag prints were created through various printmaking techniques, such as lithography, screen printing, and etching, allowing Johns to experiment with different textures and color variations. Today, Johns’ flag prints are highly regarded and can be found in significant museum collections worldwide. They continue to be celebrated as essential contributions to contemporary art history.