Visiting American Dream: pop to present at the British Museum is a bit like solving a whodunit, cracking a finickity puzzle, or unmasking a villain, il capo di tutt’i capi. Finally, we see it all: the hand that holds the strings, where the real power resides – or resided – in international art.
Warhol’s Marilyns, Johns’s American flags, Lichtenstein’s Pow!, Rauschenberg’s JFK collages, Keith Haring’s long-armed cartoons – everything in the way we look at art today stems from the post-war American scene. They’re the ones whom we secretly adhere all our admiration to, the biggest kahunas, hiding in plain sight.
Perhaps the credit crunch and Donald Trump saw the American Dream evanesce, like dreams do, and made the art it represents retreat, so that we can for the first time stand back and make a fair appraisal of the giants of the 20th century.
The exhibition confines itself to printmaking, covering Pop art; West Coast art such as David Hockney and Ed Ruscha’s; Abstraction by Richard Serra, Sam Francis, Sol LeWitt and others; Photorealism by Chuck Close; and commentary on politics, race and feminism – with a section reserved at the end for reflection on America’s current situation, with a candy-coloured banner by Mel Bochner that reads: “Going out of business! Calling it quits! Lost our lease! Everything must go! All sales final! No good offer refused!”
The 1960s, begun in earnest with the election of Kennedy, were characterised also by the Civil Rights movement, war in Vietnam and counterculture. While in the pre-war decade there had been a mixture of Eurocentric New York art and bucolic Regionalism – both in their own ways painting the nation’s straitened circumstances. Scenes that could not have been more removed from the art of LA’s Wayne Thiebaud, who imbues his deliberate, pencilled lollypops (Suckers State I) with leisure, time and the blinkingly warm sun. Likewise Thiebaud’s laconic Gumball Machine and Robert Bechtle’s studied pencil drawings of cars. Hockney’s Arcadian swimming pools complete the set piece: West Coast America as paradise, far from the over-macho Abstract Expressionism and OTT Pop art of New York.
Some of the most appealing work is that of Sol LeWitt, who with Jennifer Bartlett worked with grids and regular lines in the 1970s, developing the minimalist genre alongside Donald Judd (its most famous exponent). LeWitt’s charm is that his lines are so fragile, and the many frail lines sometimes take an irregular meander.
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