Top image: Jasper Johns (b. 1930), Flags I. Colour screenprint, 1973 © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2016. © Tom Powel Imaging.
Opening this weekend at the British Museum, The American Dream: Pop to the Present is tracing how American artists tackled the great issues that faced their country across the latter half of the 20th century. The UK’s first major exhibition to chart modern and contemporary American print making, it will 200 works by 70 artists on display including some of the country’s most prolific creative forces – think Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha and Roy Lichtenstein.
It’s a timely exhibition. Donald Trump’s America is an unprecedented (and some may say un-presidented) period in the country’s history, in which many progressive legislations are being reversed and uncertainty, alternative facts, and public protests are all prominent. But history tells us that in times of socio-political unrest, art is a resistive force for unification (just take Shia LaBeouf’s #HEWILLNOTDEVIDEUS performance art livestream).
The British Museum has a long history of showcasing objects from across the Atlantic: when it was founded in 1753, the space exhibited Native American artefacts gathered by Hans Sloane. In 2008, the museum put 150 prints from American artists of the early twentieth century on display for the public. Now, they have moved onto exploring the artwork produced later in that century. Visitors to The American Dream can see how artists tackled major social and political issues like Cold War, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, and AIDs – while exploring the innovative techniques that were used to create these masterpieces.
Stephen Coppel is curator of modern prints and drawings at the museum and takes us behind the exhibition.
Anna Savage: You have some of America’s most famous pieces of artwork displayed on these walls. Are there any pieces that are a little less known or that you think the public might not have seen before?
Stephen Coppel: I expect visitors will probably not have seen the big Willie Cole woodcut called Stowage. It’s nine feet across, four feet high, printed from an ironing board and then surrounded by steam irons. It’s very much a comment on slavery and [alongside it] we have shown a woodcut from the British Museum’s collection from the late 1790s which was produced to campaign against slavery, it shows the layout of one of the slave ships. Willie Cole, the African American artist, when he was growing up saw this little work in his school book and many years later came up with the idea of doing this woodcut which is on a monumental scale. So I think this will be a great surprise to visitors. There are only sixteen copies, twelve of which are in public collections in the United States and this is the only one outside. It really is an extraordinary work.
Anna: How do these pieces reflect the financial boom of the 80s? Was the growing culture of consumerism the epitome of the American Dream?
Stephen: I mean the affluence of the art world [is present] today too. Have the prices for contemporary art been any higher than they are today? I think what you saw in the 1980s was the rise of ‘Yuppidom’, after all, Tom Wolfe published the Bonfire of the Vanities in the mid-eighties. There is work in the exhibition by Robert Longo showing these two figures dancing, they’re dressed in ties and executive suits and so forth, male and female, they could be very much the yuppies of that period. As I said earlier, it’s difficult to know whether, in this case, Robert Longo is criticising this or simply showing it; after all, the models were his friends. In answer to your question, I can’t say that the 1980s represent the peak of affluence.
Anna: Would you say there are core principles of the American Dream which all these artists embody or does the concept change completely depending on the time frame?
Stephen: The American Dream is something which is instilled in Americans from a very young age and the idea one can improve one’s situation through hard work, education and so forth. But that dream is very much up to the individual. After all, America is built upon the achievement of individuals.
Anna: To what extent is this a continuation from your last exhibition (Germany Divided: Baselitz and his Generation), showing the other side of the coin? As Germany was coming to terms with its past, America was addressing the affluence of its present.
Stephen: It covers the same eras: 60s, 70s, 80s. I think there are similar aspects. The divisions between the East and the West, between the free world and the Communist world, part of that is addressed in the works exhibited here. If you look, for instance, at Jim Dine’s work where he shows Lyndon Johnson and Chairman Mao as the two representatives of the global superpowers. Or the work of Chris Burden, The Atomic Alphabet, which comments on the polarisation between the hardened position of America and the Free world and that of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Block.
Anna: Would you say this is an exhibition charting innovations in technology as much as it displaying interpretations of the American Dream?
Stephen: Yes, I think that’s definitely one of the strands to the exhibition. American print makers were really up for experimenting with new technology. So, in the 60s, the pop artists were keen to use the commercial processes and offset lithography which hadn’t really been used for this kind of fine art print making before. There was a real sense they wanted to kind of push printmaking as far it could go and blur the boundaries between what a print is and what a sculpture is, making these three dimensional things or very large scale prints which had never been made at that size before or with those materials before. That often required the studios to adapt their working methods and their machinery, get bigger presses, and just work in a way they never had before.
Anna: How do you think today’s artist will portray the American Dream in Trump’s America? Does the concept still exist?
Stephen: I think artists will continue to question the American Dream, especially since the 2016 presidential elections when that phrase was used so frequently by both candidates, and then so much in the media. I think artists will respond to that, either directly or indirectly, just really continuing to reflect and comment upon American politics and American society, and print has got a long tradition of being used to make political points.
“You just can’t tell the story of America without looking at those works and they really changed art, not only in America but elsewhere as well.”
Anna: Why should people still care about pop art? Why does it still matter?
Stephen: Pop art is just a small part of this exhibition. We start with pop but we continue to look at printmaking over the last 60 years. The British Museum has always attempted to tell the history of the world through its objects and you can’t look at the history of the modern world without looking at the history of modern America: pop art says so much about modern America and about the 60s, about consumer culture and the rise of celebrity culture. You just can’t tell the story of America without looking at those works and they really changed art, not only in America but elsewhere as well. Not only in their aesthetic but also the approach they took to making art and the idea of what an art object is, really blurring the boundaries between commercial art and fine art. Really, you see the start of conceptual art in pop art.
The American Dream: Pop to the Present runs at the British Museum from 9tth March to 18th June 2017.