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Fuelling a fantasy

Fuelling a fantasy

Artists have a love-hate relationship with the American Dream – a tension best captured by their prints

Artists have a love-hate relationship with the American Dream – a tension best captured by their prints

Lily Le Brun | March 30th 2017

Behind a scaffold bearing huge neon letters that spell out “American Dream”, two screenprints, both by Andy Warhol, face each other: “Marilyn” (1967), a seductive portrait of Monroe at the height of her stardom, and “Electric Chair” (1971), depicting a vacant seat. They represent opposite ends of the American experience: fame and riches, and crime and punishment. It’s a neat start to a timely exhibition at the British Museum. “The American Dream: pop to the present” charts how, from the 1960s onwards, artists have used print-making to celebrate and criticise America’s national ethos.

Dreamgirl “Jackie II (Jacqueline Kennedy II)” (1965) by Andy Warhol

Warhol himself seemed like the embodiment of the American Dream, but never believed in it. The son of working-class Czech immigrants, he found glamour, wealth and celebrity after moving to New York in the post-war boom. Yet two years before his death in 1987, he wrote, “Everybody has their own America, and then they have the pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there but they can’t see… And you live in your dream America that you’ve custom-made from art and schmaltz and emotions just as much as you live in your real one.” By holding a mirror to contemporary life, Warhol continually tried to expose what he believed was an illusion.

The exhibition focuses on the medium as the message. Print-making gave artists a way of producing many versions of the same image, which were cheaper than unique works of art and easy to disseminate. Catering to a new consumer class, the market for prints flourished in the years following the second world war. Growing numbers of publishers and workshops enticed many of America’s best-known artists, including Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Louise Bourgeois and Ed Ruscha (“Standard Station”, 1966, above), to experiment with the medium, meaning that the key artistic movements of the late 20th century – pop, minimalism, abstraction, conceptual art – are all represented in this exhibition.

Adrift “no world” (2010) by Kara Walker

These artists used one of the most democratic and consumable art forms to question the ideals underpinning American democracy. They put their creative muscle behind major social and political campaigns, including civil rights, protests against the Vietnam war, feminism and AIDS awareness. Keith Haring, an openly gay activist who came to prominence in New York in the late 1970s, deployed his distinctive style, blending graffiti and cartoons, in service of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), which fought to end the stigmatisation of the disease and urge the government into swifter action. The critique of these artists has been so forceful, the show implies, that they have exposed the American Dream as a charade, dismantling it almost entirely. And yet the exhibition’s lasting impression is not one of disillusionment and gloom, but of cynicism as a force for good.

 

“Sky Garden” (1969), colour lithograph and screenprint, by Robert Rauschenberg

The Moon landings were the ultimate fulfillment of the idea of American exceptionalism. Eight days before, Robert Rauschenberg – at the invitation of NASA – had watched the launch of Apollo 11. He made 33 lithographs of the event, including “Sky Garden”, a print which, at over seven feet tall, was one of the largest ever made. Reflecting his boyish excitement at the experience, the print swills together images of the astronauts he met with diagrams of the rocket and drawings of the machine parts and the wildlife of the area. “The whole project seemed one of the only things at that time that was not concerned with war and destruction,” Rauschenberg later wrote.

 

“Made in California” (1971), colour lithograph, by Edward Ruscha

West-coast artists offered a laid-back alternative to the punchy pop aesthetic coming out of New York. Ed Ruscha’s airy paintings and prints reflected an easy-living Californian world of cars, sunshine and wide-open spaces. His breakthrough works were a series of deadpan photographs of the gas stations that lined the route from his hometown of Oklahoma City to Los Angeles. By the 1970s, he had distilled the visual power of billboards and road signage into single, suggestive words – “Words have temperatures to me,” he said. These ones seem to sweat with their own heat, fired by Ruscha’s evocative choice of colour, which hints at juicy oranges and sunny optimism.

 

“Flags I” (1973), colour screenprint, by Jasper Johns

In 1960 Jasper Johns, who had already achieved success as a painter, began to make prints. Along with shooting targets, numerals and maps of the US, the American flag was an established symbol in his arsenal of motifs, which he deployed to counteract the idea that art needs to be personal. “I didn’t want my work to be an exposure of my feelings,” he once said. Johns displaced and multiplied these emblems so that things which were “seen and not looked at” would be perceived afresh. At first glance, this flag appears simple and graphic – but seen close up, it dissolves into a mass of lines and layers. The work is in fact made up of 30 prints and contains 15 colours. Whether his American flag had any broader social or political meaning, Johns refused to say.

 

“Big Daddy with Hats” (1971), colour screenprint, by May Stevens

In 1967, May Stevens began a series of prints featuring “Big Daddy” – a smug, pudgy character based on her father. As her unflattering portrayal of him suggests, they had a difficult relationship: she took issue with his bigoted attitudes and unsympathetic reaction to her mother’s deteriorating mental health. In this work, Big Daddy is shown as a naked paper doll, surrounded by hats representing figures of male supremacy, among them a policeman, a soldier, an executioner and a Klansman. Big Daddy, to whose head these hats can be fastened with the paper tabs, represents narrow-minded middle America, obsessed with authority and power. Stevens, whose work has been called “political Pop”, was involved in the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam war protests, and was a central figure in the 1970s feminist movement.

 

“Stowage” (1997, above), woodcut and relief, by Willie Cole; “Description of a slave ship” (1789, below), woodcut, anonymous

The inspiration for “Stowage” was a small woodcut made in 1789 by an unknown artist, depicting the Liverpool slave ship, Brookes. It was widely distributed by abolitionists because of its illustration of the horrifically overcrowded conditions in which slaves were transported. Willie Cole, who is best known as a sculptor, knew the woodcut from school textbooks. In “Stowage”, he replaces the image of the ship with an ironing board, and the cross sections of the ship with irons, which are shown from below. The dots on the ironing board correspond to the positions of the slaves in the hold, while the irons symbolise tribal masks. The work serves as a reminder that consumer society was built on the backs of slaves.

The American Dream: pop to the present British Museum, London, until June 18th

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