Color is so elemental in flag design that colors is a synonym for flag. Recently, however, all-white flags have been in the news due to two Berlin artists, Matthias Wermke and Mischa Leinkauf. In the wee hours of July 22 they evaded police surveillance to replace each 10-by-19-foot U.S. flag atop both towers of the Brooklyn Bridge with all-white versions of their own making. New Yorkers awoke to this strange spectacle, and quickly began joking about surrender.
Wermke and Leinkauf are not the only artists to produce all-white American flags. I’ve come across at least three precedents. Earliest is Jasper Johns’ monumental 1955 painting White Flag, now in the permanent collection at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Another is the flag James Cross painted white, photographed, and submitted to a 1986 design exercise by Kit Hinrichs. Third, like Wermke and Leinkauf and at roughly the same time, Portuguese artist João Felino fabricated and displayed an all-white U.S. flag as one of many “de-colored” national flags in his “Flags of the World” project.
These artworks are all, in their own ways, meditations on the ideas of liberty and possibility. They use white not as the color of surrender, but as the absence of color—so startling in the case of the U.S. flag that it forces a double-take. They make us ask anew, “what does this mean?”
Jasper Johns’ painting is a major milestone in the history of modern art, a force to be reckoned with by any subsequent artist working on this theme. It’s large (10 by 6 feet), richly layered (made of wax, pigment, and newspaper clippings), and deeply ambiguous. As critic Andrew Graham-Dixon points out, it was originally understood as “art for art’s sake” having little to say about the flag and its meaning, instead “[forcing] the viewer to contemplate only the act of painting itself”. Johns then divulged, mysteriously, that it had come to him in a dream, rooted in a trip he took with his father to a monument to their ancestor William Jasper, who died in the American Revolution saving a flag from enemy hands. And how could it not be seen as a commentary by the young, gay, and left-wing Johns on 1950s America in which ideals of free speech and free association were buried under layers of homophobia and McCarthyism?
In White Flag, Johns laid the foundation of a life-long project in which he painted and repainted the American flag many dozens of times and ways, continually returning to it and questioning it.
For his 1986 book Stars and Stripes, Kit Hinrichs invited fellow graphic designers and illustrators to reinterpret Old Glory to make a related point: that the U.S. flag itself invites reinterpretation, and that those obsessed with “protecting” it from “misuse” are misguided. James Cross’s flag covered by thick white paint is, like all the other submissions, an expression of the American ideal of liberty, to make and remake our own meanings independent of formal codes and standards. The book presents all the re-workings without commentary, leaving them to the reader to interpret.
For Wermke and Leinkauf, their flag stunt is a similar expression of individual freedom and resistance. Though mysterious (and to the NYPD embarrassing and even scary) when taken out of context, the event is better understood as part of a series of “interventions” they’ve carried out. They declare:
We investigate the boundaries of public space in urban environment through different kinds of interventions and performances. We temporarily override limitations and constraints without permission or invitation. Our aim is to question common standards and to show the beauty beyond these standards.
This particular stunt was a tribute to fellow German John Roebling, who designed the Brooklyn Bridge and died during its construction, and his American-born son Washington Roebling who oversaw its completion—and to the bridge itself as a wonderful accomplishment and public space. Their intervention calls attention to the two huge flags that are part of the bridge’s design, and (unlike the other three cases) to the power of flying a flag in a public place.
Coincidentally, while Wermke and Leinkauf were displaying all-white U.S. flags they had made in Brooklyn, artist João Felino was displaying an all-white Stars and Stripes he had made in Lisbon’s Museum of Design and Fashion (MUDE). Felino’s work is more overtly critical, pointing to the ways in which national colors divide the world’s people, fostering an “us vs. them” mentality. As the director of MUDE, Bábara Coutinho, puts it:
Without the color, the differences erode, revealing the organization and the common rules of composition that the design of all flags must respect. Thus, this installation evokes the commonalities that unite all countries, despite their cultural and historical differences. (From a Google translation of the press release for Flags of the World)
This nicely expresses the idea that there is a “language of flags” that unites all nations in common needs of self-expression, respect, and autonomy, but also in the material requirements of flag design itself. Flags are about free speech and liberty, but also standards and constraints.
The questions that Jasper Johns first raised in White Flag in 1955 continue to resonate. How can flags be at once commonplace but extraordinary, standardized but reinterpretable, divisive but universal, and admitting so many layers of interpretation and meaning? The “simple”—but provocative—act of draining color from a flag is a surprisingly rich way to explore fundamental vexillological concerns.
(For more on white flags and art, David Dunnico’s A White Flag on the Moon and other stories about Flags and art and stuff is full of fascinating examples and analysis. Available at http://artandflags.wordpress.com.)