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Jasper Johns US flag masterpiece donated to the British Museum
Jasper Johns, Flags I, 1973 © Jasper Johns / DACS, London.

LONDON.- With just one day to go until the 2020 US Presidential election, the British Museum announces that it has acquired a major million-dollar artwork by celebrated American artist Jasper Johns. The work – Flags I, a 1973 colour screenprint – features Johns’ iconic American flag motif and has been generously donated to the American Friends of the British Museum by Leslie and Johanna Garfield who have amassed one of the most comprehensive private collections of 20th century prints in the world.

Johns is one of the most celebrated and sought-after living American artists, and Flags I is a masterpiece of his prolific career as a printmaker. The US flag, which he has used repeatedly since the 1950s, is featured twice in the print, presented as reversed and hanging downwards. It is printed predominantly in red, white and blue, but also includes areas of green, orange and black. The flag on the left has a matt finish while an additional layer of varnish gives the flag on the right a gloss finish. The result is a rich and vivid surface texture which is highly unusual for a print. Made nearly twenty years after Johns’ first utilized the Stars and Stripes in his work, Flags I confronts the viewer with an almost perfect fusion of the obviously straightforward and the impossibly complex.

Johns produced Flags I in an edition of 65, with 7 artist’s proofs. Three other impressions of this print have sold at auction in recent years, all for well over $1 million. (Christie’s New York 2019, $1.2m; Sotheby’s New York 2018, $1.6m, Christie’s New York 2016, $1.7m). The impression acquired by the British Museum is in near perfect condition and is thought to be of the same value. Johns’ various iterations of the American Flag, both in paint and in print, are among his most sought-after works, both by private collectors and museums, and this is reflected in the high prices that they have reached at auction in recent years.

The impression of the work acquired by the British Museum – numbered 7/65 – had been owned by Johanna and Leslie Garfield since 1980 before being gifted to AFBM. The American Friends of the British Museum is a publicly supported US organisation which aims to raise awareness of the British Museum’s work for Americans in the US and those living abroad.

It was loaned to the British Museum as one of the star objects of the 2017 exhibition The American Dream: pop to the present which was the UK’s first major show to chart modern and contemporary American printmaking. The American Dream, including Flags I, has just begun a new covid-delayed three-venue tour of Spain: it opened at the CaixaForum Madrid earlier this month and will go on to visit CaixaForum Barcelona and CaixaForum Zaragoza. The official donation to the British Museum’s collection was completed in the summer, and the print will return to the Museum in London when the exhibition run is complete.

Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum, said: “American art, like American politics, has always had an influence far beyond the borders of the USA. As the country heads to the polls in just a few days’ time, this important acquisition reminds us of the global influence of the United States and how crucial it is for an institution like the British Museum to collect contemporary works from America. I want to thank Leslie and Johanna Garfield, and the American Friends of the British Museum, for their gift.”

Catherine Daunt, Hamish Parker Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the British Museum said: “This is a hugely important print from Jasper Johns. It is beautiful, complex and technically a great achievement. We now have 16 works by Johns in the collection, all of which are outstanding in their own way, but visually this is undoubtedly the most spectacular. Johns’ treatment of the American flag epitomizes his approach to art: create an interesting image and then stand back and allow the viewer to decide what it means.”

Hugo Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, said: “The British Museum is home to the national collection of prints and drawings, and this is one of the most important single artwork gifts this collection has received in recent times. Over the last forty years the Museum has built up one of Europe’s most comprehensive collections of American 20th-century prints, and thanks to Leslie and Johanna Garfield and the American Friends of the British Museum it now has one of the key works in that field. Their generosity means that the British public and international audiences can now enjoy one of the great masterpieces of American printmaking: a work that typifies John’s impulse to analyse and de-construct images, like the stars and stripes of the American flag, that are so familiar that they have become almost invisible and in so doing make us look at them anew.”

The print can be seen on the British Museum Collection online here.

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