There is one exhibit conspicuously missing from the British Museum’s new retrospective of American printmaking, and that’s the famous ‘Hope’ poster of Barack Obama from the 2008 election. That image is arguably the apogee of decades of art, advertising and popular culture colliding in America; a union that is traced carefully and comprehensively in this excellent show.
‘The American Dream: pop to the present’ considers how, in the post-war era, as the Don Drapers were making fortunes on Madison Avenue flogging an aspirational lifestyle to the masses, a generation of artists looked over at this and used printmaking to challenge, to subvert and to reflect their times.
The most prominent among them were artists including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein; Warhol commodifying everything, even an electric chair, into lurid, garish prints, Lichtenstein borrowing from comic books and cartoons and elevating them into something more. Rauschenberg’s work in particular documented the 1960s; the idealism of Camelot, the lure of the unknown with the space race, the burgeoning tragedy of Vietnam and the counter-culture that grew up against it. He wasn’t the only one; one of the first prints you see is the majestic ‘F-111’ by James Rosenquist, which contrasts the war overseas with imagery pertaining to the model of the American nuclear family.
The exhibition makes clear that printmaking has often, if not always, been used to comment on the socio-political context, charting its use by different activist movements, from the Aids campaigners to the Guerrilla Girls, whose famous feminist poster asked ‘Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?’, or Jim Dines’ ‘Drag – Johnson and Mao’, ridiculing both leaders and doing so perhaps more effectively than any protest or demonstration could.
Arguably the most striking image on display is ‘no world’ from ‘An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters’ by Kara Walker, a 2010 print charting the horrors of slave ships sailing to the new world, death and destruction foretold by the stormy waters and ominous skies.
Tracing printmaking from its naissance as an art form in the pop art era through to its use by the abstract expressionists, and later by conceptual and photorealist artists, the focus is largely on the experimental early decades of printmaking. And experimental they were. You learn that Ed Ruscha worked with gun powder and also experimented with printing with salmon roe and caviar, while Rauschenberg lithographed his own X-rays for his work. I was amused to learn that one artist, Claes Oldenburg, recalled his three dimensional prints of a car after the chemicals used made them turn yellow, as if he was a manufacturer limiting the fallout from a faulty product.
This is the first exhibition of US printmaking in the UK on such a large scale, and they’ve pulled in all the big guns; Jasper Johns, not least, but also de Kooning, Cy Twombly, and of course Warhol. And so many of these works are familiar, having entered the public consciousness (perhaps because of their close kinship with advertising), that it’s a real treat to see them in reality. There are Johns’ famous flags, for example, or prints from his ‘Stoned Moon’ series; still others are less well known but equally absorbing (and mysterious; as the curators note, Johns rarely answered questions on what his work was intended to symbolise or show).
Ruscha, likewise, is well-represented; the whimsical ‘Made in California’, in which the letters ooze like the oranges grown in the state; various prints of sunkissed vistas, bright apartment blocks and too glossy gas stations rendered as if to underline America – and California especially – as the dream location Hollywood and advertisers claimed it to be.
This is an exhibition designed to draw the crowds, but for good reason, and with more than 200 prints on display, it’s well worth the ticket price. You leave struck by the range of styles and techniques that fall under the umbrella of printmaking, and fascinated to see how the next generation of artists will respond.
The American Dream: pop to present, until 18th June 2017 at the British Museum. Tickets £16.50