The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

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SEPT 2023 Issue


Flag, 1954-55 (I)
Encaustic, oil & collage on fabric mounted on wood (3 panels)
41¼ x 60¾ inches

to read a painting     to read a page    is to live overlapping moments    flattened on a plane

a site of love & aggression     every object of study     a fantasy object     that survives

the inevitable     reader who says hello    dear other    i destroyed you    i love you

a technique     of individuation    & an inescapable condition    of cultural production

to paint a flag      means design’s taken care of     johns says in 1959     it gives me room

to work on other levels      which other levels     does he mean ?      critics ask for decades

the commonplace as a painting     its affect flat as a slap     it’s the military application

of visual techniques      for focusing desire    or aggression    an affront to certain histories

of art     graphic design    nationhood    & aren’t there other    other levels ?     i ask the flag

as i pull back     the bedsheet beneath    layers of newspaper    & tinted wax       & lie down

not really collage     a critic says     not really encaustic     the dream of a former soldier

with a new boyfriend      & an estranged alcoholic father      dead the day before his first show

the flag’s a fantasy       of love & destruction    emblem of everything     conflicted inside him

the flag’s an affect     wide as migraine     debilitating & interesting     to lie down inside

White Flag, 1955
Encaustic, oil & collage on fabric (3 panels)
78¼ x 120¾ inches

for Lauren Berlant

the flag’s an affect     white as migraine     debilitating & interesting     to lie down inside

the surface churn of pigment & wax     & figure how i feel     beginning with structure

a layer of paper & cloth collage     over stretched sateen     sensual     bedclothes of a rough fuck

paramnesia streaked with semen     the way sexuality hooks up with national fantasy     queer

& visited by crippling symptoms     in the visual field of citizenship     i’ve been here before

as a boy i earn a badge of merit     learning to handle the flag correctly     it takes a long time

to remember all the rules     to fold & store it properly     it’s the gentlest i have seen

the white fathers who teach us     who take more care with that fabric than they do with

a sissy     afraid of their cold war masculinity     indifferent to their curriculum of flags

targets & maps     i fashion a passionate impassivity     in the locker room a lot

like jasper johns     his ready-made images     i like about them, that they come that way

he says     i am very stupid, politically, actually     he says     pretty much like a jock strap

holding state knowledge     a site of the full coming together of violence & reason

dear johns     thank you for the headache     i hate your archive     a faggot has no true flag

Flag, 1954–55 (II)
Encaustic, oil & collage on fabric mounted on wood (3 panels)
41 1/4 × 60 3/4 inches

to johns i write     a faggot has no true flag     as if his painting     a simulacrum

on a bedsheet     in layers of newspaper     dipped in hot wax     could be a true flag

i know it’s not     + not not a flag     the way a faggot’s not a man     + not not a man

i hate his archive     but i like this snapshot of him   just two years out of the army

crouching beneath this painting     in 1955    pale & boyish     former soldier

the historian calls     a docile body    object & target of power    johns says he dreamt

of painting this      a fact art critics repeat    without asking why    the historian

calls the soldier’s body     a fragment of mobile space    as if war were just collage

soldier cut out of context      pasted into another     like time’s man of the year

in 1951     “name: american”   “occupation: fighting man”     johns is drafted

works on graphic design in japan     while soldiers & civilians     millions     die

in korea     & now here he is     in a new york loft      his boyfriend behind the camera

saucepans & hot plate on the floor     white mound of beeswax     to make encaustic

for eight more stars     each detail    part of a political anatomy    still unfinished

Flag above White with Collage, 1955
Encaustic & collage on canvas
22 × 19 inches

forty-eight scars     part of a political anatomy    still unfinished    in the 1950s

the critic writes    modern art keeps getting entangled    in america’s contradictions

but what doesn’t     in any american era    i’m an analysand    in my anxiety dream

about the flag paintings     the analyst says don’t worry     paintings also have an unconscious

structured as a language     produced in the social field    out of a historical situation

some read his deadpan flags     as “decadent” rejections   of the “heroic” AbEx paintings

the CIA sends around the globe     to combat socialist realism     i intuitively like to paint flags

johns tells newsweek in ‘58      i have no ideas    about what the paintings      imply about the world

EVERY AMERICAN FLAG     writes navajo artist demian dinéyazhí    IS A WARNING SIGN

from 1958-59    this painting tours the country     in a show called    collage in america

in it a white man     in a strip of photo-booth pictures    johns finds on the street

looks out from behind stripes     stretching past an uneven field     of battered stars

i imagine him     in davenport    nashville    tallahassee    laramie     poughkeepsie

a stranger     a watchman    passing through    his looking    looks back at our looking

Flag, 1960
Sculp-metal & collage on canvas with Sculp-metal on wood frame
13⅛ x 11¼ inches

a stranger     a watchman    i pass through    my looking looks back     over this flag for R

a gift johns promises ca. 1957    & only delivers     the year before they break up     gray

not just as a color     that avoids a color situation    gray as idea    condition     material

gray as an attachment broken     at the point of most intimate contact     so the mind hides it

from itself     to preserve it    in a fiction     that avoids the emotional      dramatic qualities

of saying goodbye     the gray johns says is a literal quality     unmoved & unmovable

here has the force     of a passion that causes pain    denied & stifled      a self that can’t be

revealed or spoken of     R keeps it until his death    unfrightened of the affection

beginning with structure     the division of the whole into parts     the painting of a flag

john cage writes     has its precedent in the sonnet    the grand division of fourteen lines

into eight & six     cage doesn’t suggest   this makes johns a poet     & this flag a love poem

the kind only johns can write     to glimpse what joys or pains     our eyes can share

or answer     to quote hart crane    a deflection     the way i too here throw my voice

still unable to give R     the one unbetrayable reply    whose accent no farewell can know


Brian Teare

Brian Teare is the author of seven books and Doomstead Days, which received the Four Quartets Award from the Poetry Society of America and was Longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award in Poetry. His most recent book, Poem Bitten by a Man, will be published in September 2023 by Nightboat Books. He is an Associate Professor at the University of Virginia, and lives in Charlottesville, where he makes books by hand for his micropress, Albion Books.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

All Issues