The American Dream, pop to the present, at The British Museum

Electric Chair, 1971, Andy Warhol

We have had a remarkable series of exhibitions in London over the past few years, summarising the story of C20 American Art. The last two which I reviewed were American Gothic and Abstract Expressionism, both at the Royal Academy. And now the British Museum brings us up to the present day with a fascinating exhibition of prints from Pop Art to the present day.

Great American Nude, Tom Wessellmann, 1965

The title of the exhibition is The American Dream, but this is not a paen to that dream. Rather it is a ruthless exposure of the American Dream as both superficial in its content and highly restrictive in its application. That message is made clear from the moment you enter the exhibition and are confronted with a haunting series of Warhol screenprints of an electric chair awaiting its next victim. Each print is slightly different but their multiplicity undoubtedly adds to the power; ‘Repetition makes Reputation’ as Warhol said. Across from the electric chair are another set of prints, this time of Marilyn Monroe made after she committed suicide, which forces us to confront the contrast between the glamorous external image and the sad, lonely internal reality. The American Dream, we are being told, may promise glamour and material success but it is built on the bodies of those who cannot enjoy that success. The whole exhibition is a modern American morality tale.

This theme recurs throughout the exhibition, whether in highlighting the sterile blandness of gas stations chained across America in Ed Ruschka’s work, reducing the female nude to a glossy, impersonalised plastic shell in Tom Wesselmann’s work, or highlighting the reduced status of female artists or Black Americans in more recent work by the Guerrilla Girls, Emma Amos and others.

Standard Station, Ed Busca, 1966

This is not to say that all the work in the exhibition carries or was intended to carry a political message. The post war period in America involved the re-emergence of print as an artistic medium and involved both remarkable innovation and continuously testing the limits of the medium whether it be screen printing, lithography or intaglio. This is beautifully demonstrated in works by Rauschenberg, LeWitt and, McPherson whose mezzotint Yankee Stadium at Night was for me the most compelling image in the exhibition. This is surely one of the most outstanding C20 examples of the printmakers art.

Arena II, State II, Robert Rauschenburg, 1969


Yankee Stadium at Night, Craig McPherson, 1983

With the benefit of hindsight it becomes obvious that print was the only medium in which this modern American morality tale could be told. Whilst many of the artists revelled in the unpredictability of hand made print making,  Warhol wanted each print to be different and Rauschenberg’s most famous print the breaking of his lithography stone as he prepared to print, the creation of repetitive images reinforces the industrial and consumerist nature of C20 America and became an essential part of both disseminating their work and achieving commercial success.

Mississippi Wagon 1937, Emma Amos, 1992

I had put off going to this exhibition for some time, and went with limited expectations. But I was compelled from start to finish both by many individual prints and the emerging overall theme. There are only a few days until the exhibition closes and if you have the chance to go, seize it.

The Advantages Of Being A Woman Artist 1988 by Guerrilla Girls
First published 1988