The American Dream: Pop To The Present

Spring 2017 saw the arrival of one of the year’s biggest exhibitions at the British Museum in London. The American Dream: Pop To The Present, is the first art exhibition solely dedicated to printmaking in America and is one of the most important exhibitions that I have seen.

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The artworks and their arrangement form a linear progression through a dynamic period in modern American history, from the 1960s to the present day. With the JFK assassination, Apollo 11, the AIDS crisis, racism and gender politics, the last 60 years in America have been tumultuous to say the least. The American Dream exhibition is a demonstration of the response of artists who lived through these events. By drawing upon these historical episodes, the evolving American landscape, the new age of advertising and cultural affairs, we experience this extraordinary period of American history through the eyes of some its most celebrated artists; and I explore my favourite pieces on display.


The exhibition begins with pop art which exploded all over the 1960s and was a stark contrast to the Abstract Expressionist movement that dominated the previous decade. Featuring some of the most iconic artworks of the 20th century including a selection of pieces by Andy Warhol. As the son of Czech immigrants who had moved to America, Warhol is an artist who probably represents the notion of the American Dream more than any other.

This was a very special moment for me to view one of my favourite all-time artworks, none other than Andy Warhol’s ‘Marilyn’ silkscreens. Marilyn Monroe passed away unexpectedly in 1962 shortly after Warhol has started using his new silkscreen technique. Silkscreens mimicked a production line and drew parallels with the new mass produced age, printed advertisements and was critically a modern technique to reflect the modern age. The Marilyn artworks, depicting the most famous actress in the world using an image from a publicity still from the film Niagara, highlight the tragedy behind the glossy facade projected by Hollywood and simultaneously the American Dream and consumer age.

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Andy Warhol, Jackie II (Jacqueline Kennedy II), from 11 Pop Artists, vol. II, 1965, published 1966, colour screenprint © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London.

There was a religious undertone at the root of Warhol’s art, seen not only in his Marilyn silkscreens, but also in his later works of Jackie Kennedy in the same format. Marilyn becomes a figure of worship alluding to the cult of celebrity as the new religion whereas the image of Jackie Kennedy was famed as a style icon and idolised widely. The image that Warhol used for his silkscreens is of her weeping at the funeral of JFK, which immortalises her as a weeping Madonna. Also in the room are works by James Rosenquist and Lichtenstein.

The next stage of the exhibition is dedicated to three giants of printmaking; Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Jim Dine. These artists pushed the boundaries of printmaking and deployed a variety of techniques in their artworks.

Flags I by Jasper Johns, perhaps the artist’s most famous work, is on display and is the featured artwork of the exhibition. At first glance the piece appears to be a reproduction of two flags of the United States situated side-by-side, but upon closer inspection there is more to the artwork than meets the eye. There is an assembly of different marks and is not a straightforward print, it is composed of fifteen colours from thirty different screens.

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Jasper Johns (b. 1930), Flags I. Colour screenprint, 1973. Gift of Johanna and Leslie Garfield, on loan from the American Friends of the British Museum. © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2016. © Tom Powel Imaging

The flags are also distinguished from one another and are not two identical flags. The flag on the right side has an additional gloss varnish whereas the flag on the left does not. This results in two flags, a glossy one and a matt one. To me, this can be interpreted in different ways; the artwork can be seen to reflect two Americas, the illusion and the reality that lies behind the projected image of the American Dream. It can also be seen to represent the divisions in American society. Johns remarked that the American flag was one of those recognisable objects that is ‘seen and not looked at’ which is what we are encouraged to do with this piece.

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The high intensity of the images of pop art rooted in the New York scene was markedly different from the pop art that developed on the West Coast which is where the exhibition migrates to next. The artist that created the most compelling visual narrative of the West Coast lifestyle was Ed Ruscha. Home of Hollywood film studios, boulevards, swimming pools and orange groves, California offered a more laid back lifestyle to that of New York.

A feature that was pertinent to the art of the West Coast was the American highway. A seamless stretch of road only broken by the luminous signs of gasoline stations intermittently located. The prominence of these was documented in Rucha’s book 26 Gasoline Stations which highlights the changes that had taken place to the American landscape. His artwork Standard Station probably best exemplifies this.

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Edward Ruscha (b. 1937), Standard Station. Colour screenprint, 1966. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence.© Ed Ruscha. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

Portraying the the oil brand Standard, a double meaning can be interpreted from the artwork. On one level it is a depiction of a ‘Standard Oil’ gasoline station on the highway, on the other hand it is what is says, a standard station. What distinguishes it from any other of the stations on the highway? The illuminated sign is a modern day beacon set against a Technicolor sunset.

The American Dream: Pop To The Present runs at the British Museum 9th March – 18th June 2017

The Original Pop Stars

Warhol & Monroe

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