Published: March 28, 2017
LONDON – The UK’s first major exhibition to chart modern and contemporary American printmaking, “The American Dream: Pop to the Present,” is on view at the British Museum through June 18. The exhibition explores the creativity of a medium that flourished through some of the most dynamic and turbulent years in US history and that accompanied a period when its wealth, power and cultural influence had never been greater.
The exhibition includes important loans from institutions such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, as well as works drawn from the British Museum’s extensive collection of prints. Using more than 200 works by 70 artists, the exhibition traces the creative momentum of American art over the past six decades – from the moment Pop Art burst onto the New York and West Coast scenes in the early 1960s, through the rise of Minimalism, conceptual art and photorealism in the 1970s, to the practices of living artists working today.
Many of America’s leading artists are featured, including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha, Chuck Close, Louise Bourgeois, Kara Walker and Andy Warhol, all of whom engaged with printmaking to create some of the most enduring images of recent years.
The exhibition explores the innovative techniques and unprecedented scale, boldness and ambition that made American printmaking an ideal expression of the USA’s power and influence, as well as how the medium addressed contemporary social issues such as race, AIDS and feminism.
Large prints designed to be seen en masse, such as Warhol’s “Marilyn,” the minimalist linear inflections of the sculptor Donald Judd or the monumental woodcut “Stowage” by the African American Willie Cole on the legacy of slavery, will be shown alongside those on a smaller, more intimate scale, including artists’ books by Ed Ruscha, Ida Applebroog and others.
Some American artists made prints that related closely to their work in other media, and this crossover is shown in works such as Andy Warhol’s “Little Electric Chair” painting alongside his series of ten screen prints of the same subject and Claes Oldenburg’s sculpture of the “Three-Way Plug” juxtaposed with his “Floating Three-Way Plug” etching.
Inspired by the monumental, bold and eye-catching imagery of postwar America, a young generation of artists took to printmaking with enthusiasm, putting it on an equal footing with painting and sculpture and matching their size, bright color and impact.
Meanwhile, the growth of an affluent middle class in urban America also opened a booming market for prints that was seized upon by enterprising publishers, print workshops and artists. Artists were encouraged to create prints in state-of-the-art workshops newly established on both the East and West Coasts. The widening audience for prints also attracted some to use the medium as a means for expressing pungent, sometimes dissenting, opinions on the great social issues of the day. American prints provide a vivid and varied commentary on a period of great change for US society.
Works celebrating America’s enterprise and ingenuity include Rauschenberg’s rocket-sized “Sky Garden” from his “Stoned Moon” print series (marking the 1969 moon landings), while other works touch on darker themes such as President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, the Vietnam War, the struggle for civil rights, the AIDS crisis and issues of gender and identity.
The museum is on Great Russell Street. For more information, www.americandreamexhibition.org or +44 20 7323 8299.
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