The British Museum holds over thirteen million objects, relics and antiquities from ancient and modern civilisations, including Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, Egypt, the Mayan civilisation, China, Ancient Greece, Persia, Rome, the Aztecs, the Incans, each empire seemingly indomitable at the time, but each eventually declining and crumbling, to be absorbed, supplanted by another, beaten in wars, or, in the case of the Roman empire, overrun by millions of barbarians from the north and east of Europe. The Persian Civilisation was brought down after 200 years by a soldier of Macedon, Alexander the Great. Perhaps we are about to witness the decline and fall of the richest and most powerful nation ever seen on earth? If so, we can thank the British Museum for doing what museums do best, cataloguing bringing together an exhibition that celebrates an era of change and naïvité in American culture from the 1960s until the present day. Donald Trump talked about ‘the American dream being dead’ during his campaign trail, then cast himself as its saviour by proclaiming ‘Let’s make America great again’. He then withdrew funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and pumped more into defense.
There are two films playing side-by-side in one of the displays, one showing what epitomised ‘the American Dream’ in retro televisual and video imagery, from gas stations to space rockets, from flashy, winged cars to Hollywood, with the other displaying the prints on show all around. The exhibition opens with ten colour Warhol screenprints of Marilyn, the face that launched a thousand tote bags, an image so familiar as to be a cliché, alongside his Electric Chair from 1971. Later in the exhibition, there is the creepy, bile-green face of Richard Nixon staring at the viewer, with the caption below reading Vote McGovern. Warhol is a key player in the American flirtation with the medium of print, in all its many forms, although his legacy is mainly silkscreen, and there is an explanetory clip of the process, cleverly presented on the flat, as though a screenprint rig. Other artists to favour this medium are Roy Lichenstein, Ed Ruscha, with his iconic Standard Station and Hollywood, Richard Serra, Joseph Albers and Frank Stella with his Double Gray Scramble, which comprised two squares of concentric stripes printed in 150 colours from fifty screens, printed by Ken Tyler at Gemini in LA. The hyperrealist painter Richard Estes’s hard-edged Urban Landscapes featuring facades from diners, restaurants, hardware stores and office blocks, are ideally suited to his anal depiction of reflections and neon signage.
Pop art emerged from the economic boom in the 1960s, when Americans were blanket-bombed by advertising on TV, in the press and on billboards. The pop artists also took inspiration from movies, comics and newspapers and were fascinated with consumerism and comodities. James Rosenquist produced his monumental composition F-111 in 1964, a multi-panel oil painting with alumunium 26-metre long, longer than the aircraft, but on show is a 7.3 metre long colour lithograph with screenprint done 10 years later. Claes Oldenburg became obsessed with everyday household objects such as electrical plugs and screws, using etching and aquatint, while Robert Rauschenberg experimented with lithography, as well as screenprinting. Jasper Johns used both mediums for his targets, alphabets, flags, maps and his deceptively simple Coat Hanger, produced in 1960. Wayne Thiebaud is not only represented by his charmingly mundane etchings of Lunch and Bacon and Eggs, but by lithography and colour linocuts, while Robert Bechtle’s black and white etchings depict automobile status-symbols, like ‘60 T-Bird and a Camaro. Robert Motherwell adopted surrealist automatist techniques to make his dynamic marks using lithography, and Elsworth Kelly’s flat, lithographic ovoid shapes, one of which he said, according to David Hockney, was ‘two boys’ bums’.
Mezzotints, an intaglio process that works from dark to light by scraping and burnishing, are best represented by Craig McPherson,whose moodily eerie Yankee Stadium at Night is a masterpiece in chiaroscuro, while Yvonne Jacquette’s Tip of Manhatten achieves great depth in her nocturnal landscape by the use of black and blue woodcuts. Other printing techniques are displayed and explained in this expansive and comprehensive exhibition, including drypoint, engraving, photogravure, sugar-lift aquatint, spit-bite etching and sometimes, more than one process on the same print, such as Jim Dine, who utilised etching, drypoint, soft-ground and aquatint in his Five Painbrushes (sixth state). Chuck Close experimented with yet another medium, the paper-pulp technique, then the painstaking spit-bite aquatint and etching process, and, finally, mezzotint, in the three examples of his work on display. After a collapsed spinal artery in 1988, which left him paralysed and wheelchair-bound, he carried on working with a brace attached to his arm. Three quarters of the exhibits are from the British Museum’s own collection, with loans from MOMA, Tate, V&A, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and many private owners.
If only Andy Warhol had been around in 2017 to make a screenprint of Donald Trump, with his pout hairdo in various colourways.