"Star and Stripes" - Emma Amos
Art London

The American Dream: Pop to the Present

Good Morning, and Welcome to the British Museum. Room 4 hosts the Rosetta Stone, while in Room 18 you will find the Parthenon Marbles. In the Sainsbury Gallery, you will find ‘The Electric Chair’ by Andy Warhol.

Wait, said what!? What do you mean, Andy Warhol?

'Electric Chair' - Andy Warhol
'Electric Chair' - Andy Warhol © The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation

Welcome to the newest exhibition at the British Museum, a follow-up of the previous “The American Scene” the museum hosted in 2008. The exposition is a direct connection to the contemporary “America after the fall: Painting in the 1930s” at the Royal Academy and the retrospective of David Hockney at Tate Britain.

"Star and Stripes" - Emma Amos
'Star and Stripes' - Emma Amos © Emma Amos

We think it’s amazing how British Museum decided to put aside his rigorous and scholastic style, and throw itself in the territory of modern art 🖼 Speaking of Pop Art in a museum dedicated to ancient cultures is a bold move, and it is a starting point for a broader discussion. Pop Art, in fact, is nothing else but the celebration of the ordinary, the victory of common and trivial. Isn’t our modern world full of “stuff”? Are we not celebrating the “thing”, our objects?

British Museum is, in our opinion, thinking of the future, and it organizes a show about the most iconic trivialities, a manifest for generations to come saying “Here, this is what represents our time”. Maybe it’s a bit far-fetched, but we think this is an incredible line of thinking, and we are thankful to British Museum for letting us explore ourselves as we would explore an ancient civilization.

'I Love Liberty' - Roy Lichtenstein
'I Love Liberty' - Roy Lichtenstein © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

The exhibition focuses on “The American Dream” The starting point of the gallery is: What is the American Dream? How many American Dreams are there in the world, and how did they evolve over the last fifty years?

'Sky Garden' - Robert Rauschenberg
'Sky Garden' - Robert Rauschenberg © The Rauschenberg Foundation

The evolution of the concept is analyzed, with yet another genius intuition, via a collection of prints. Silk prints, etchings, aquatints, woodcuts, lithographs.

The very same techniques that Robert Rauschenberg, one of the leading artists represented in the exhibition, was a critique of at the beginning (he famously stated “the second half of the twentieth century is no time to start writing on rocks”, referring to lithographs) and who used extensively during his career. Old ways of working for modern currents.

'Gumball machine' - Wayne Thiebaud
'Gumball machine' - Wayne Thiebaud © Wayne Thiebaud/DACS

The rooms, mostly in chronological order, offer a rigorous perspective of the multifaceted concept of the American Dream. The starting is thrilling. A bright red room places, one in front of the other, the symbol of death, ‘The  Electric Chair’, and the symbol of life, ‘Marilyn Monroe’, warning us about the complexity of the dream, and the USA in general. There is an additional line of complexity given by the presence of Marilyn itself, as Warhol produced this artwork shortly after Marilyn’s death, but we’re digressing.

'Marylin Monroe' - Andy Warhol
'Marylin Monroe' - Andy Warhol © British Museum
'Self-Portrait: the landscape' - Jim Dine
'Self-Portrait: the landscape' - Jim Dine © British Museum

From there, we start from the very beginning of the Pop Art, when “the Dream” was an almost immaculate positive concept. The “almost” is of fundamental importance: a subtle line of pessimism is omnipresent in every work, the artistic world first acknowledged how the proposed vision of the American dream was fundamentally flawed!

Take a second to look at ‘Self-Portrait: the landscape’, by Jim Dine. A serene, peaceful scene with a light blue sky, the sun and green grass is depicted on a bathrobe. The decision of using a tool, the bathrobe in this case, for representing himself opens up to different lines of thinking regarding how a man is identified by his object rather than by himself.

Furthermore, the landscape does not follow the natural bends of the garment. It’s as the robe is a window toward the outside, a way of escape!

The first group of rooms is also divided into two sets: East Coast and West Coast. Two major printing laboratories were the focal points for every Pop artist willing to try working with printmaking: one was on Long Island, the other one in L.A. The exhibition shows the differences between the two coasts by separating works coming from these two laboratories.

While on the Atlantic side we have the frenzy, the haste and the nervousness as central themes, the Pacific one has much more relaxed, lonely, solitude atmosphere.

'Standard Station' - Ed Ruscha © Ed Ruscha
'Standard Station' - Ed Ruscha © Ed Ruscha

Examples of the latter are ‘Made in California’, from Ed Ruscha, with its bloody-alike letters made with orange juice over an orange background, and ‘Standard Station’, where the artist express all his boredom and loneliness with an oversized gas station over an anonymous landscape.

Politics is one of the main themes of the post-second world war America, and several artists expressed their opinions via their works. Andy Warhol created the series ‘Vote Mc Govern’ in 1972.

demonized Richard Nixon is colored with hallucinated tonalities, while the writing “Vote Mc Govern” (the Democratic candidate during the Presidential Election of 1972, when Nixon won his second mandate) is printed underneath. Five years before Jim Dine published ‘Johnson And Mao’.

'Vote Mc Govern' - Andy Warhol © Andy Warhol Foundation
'Vote Mc Govern' - Andy Warhol © Andy Warhol Foundation
'Camino Real' - Anni Albers © MBAI
'Camino Real' - Anni Albers © MBAI

Another primary artistic current in post-war America experienced radically different traits from Pop Art.

While Ruscha and Lichtenstein were creating artworks from basic tools, minimalism concentrated on the complete separation between the artist and the artwork, favoring geometric forms and monochromatic structures.

It’s a fascinating development from the abstract expressionism (think Pollock, for example), but the two of rooms of the exhibition are not enough for explaining the complexity of the movement.

The same thing can be said for photorealism, another significant movement of the 70s. This is essentially just another form of minimalism, where the artist completely separates himself from their works. The 70s brought a wave of disillusionment, and artists try to hide into their own works. The mass culture is winning over the world, what started as the triumph of the individual, the freedom of choice, became a monster devouring the humanity of the people. And the art movements follow this general feeling!

'Grant's' - Richard Estes © Marlborough Gallery
'Grant's' - Richard Estes © Marlborough Gallery

The 80s brings back the human figure as a central subject for expressing concepts. A new wave of interest in politics and in the issues America is facing, with the disaggregation of the USSR on the horizon, opens up the way to several artists for expressing opinions via their works.

Guerilla Girls manifesto © www.guerillagirls.com
Guerilla Girls manifesto © www.guerillagirls.com

Feminism, Racism, HIV are only a few of the topics artists focus their attention on during this period. ‘Ignorance = Fears’, by Keith Haring, is an example. 1985 marked the born of the feminist group ‘Guerilla Girls’, who placed their famous manifesto in New York as a response to the MoMA exhibition “An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture”, where only 13 over 165 artists were women.

At the end of the exhibition, a real gem: ‘Ghost Station’, from Ed Ruscha, is the very same Standard Station the artist printed in 1966. This time, though, there are no colors on the paper. The American Dream is dead. Every feeling from the 60s completely disappeared, there is nothing more than a fainting memory. It’s an incredible ending and the perfect way for terminating this fantastic exhibition.

'Ghost Station' - Ed Ruscha © Christie's
'Ghost Station' - Ed Ruscha © Christie's

This is just a glance of what you can find, allocate at least 3 hours as the 12 rooms are filled with wonderful artworks, and you’ll get lost shortly after entering. Thanks to British Museum and to the curators, Stephen Coppel and Catherine Daunt, for organizing this unique exhibition!

useful info

When and Where:

9 March – 18 June 2017

@ British Museum

Opening times:

Saturday – Thursday 10:00 – 17:30

Friday  10:00 – 20:30

Price:

Adult £16.50
Concession £13.00

Did you see the exhibition? What’s your interpretation of The American Dream? Which room did you like the most?

Wanna know more about current exhibitions in London? Read here.