News, Mews, Prews: Print and Pop

"Despite sometimes confusing elements, it is still worth a visit. The vibrant prints are like a time capsule." 

Detail: James Rosenquist, F111, 1964. The piece is a highlight of the exhibition. 
Andy Warhol once said he was ‘thrilled’ when he discovered the possibilities of printmaking. The British Museum’s ambitious exhibition The American Dream: From Pop Art to The Present aims to fill visitors with this same appreciation of the craft whilst covering a huge time period from the 1960s to the Trump era.

(Ed Ruscha, News Mews Prews Brews Stews & Dues, 1970)- Artists such as Ruscha were fascinated with how print and mass production could warp messages in a world of consumerism 

Unfortunately, no photos are allowed in the exhibition, which is a shame as the eye-catching layout and design of the displays would make for some great Instragrams. The arrangement mirrors the emotions of each era; the bright walls and flashing lights of consumerism in the Pop Art years contrasting with the darker uncertainty of later decades. There is a clear direction through the display, from the high points of Warhol’s Marilyn to the disillusionment of Jim Dine’s Drag- Johnson and Mao.

Jim Dine, Drag- Johnson and Mao, 1967 

The exhibition has chosen to focus on print, a medium often overshadowed by the more traditional paint and sculpture. It is a particularly interesting angle to take with Pop Art, an era where artists dipped into many different fields including film and multi-media installations. Regarding artists such as Claes Oldenburg (renowned for his huge, ironic sculptures of everyday items), prints are an unusual way through which to access his art. His etchings of the Three Way Plug could have provided a new angle to his way of working. Yet, the sculpture was then suspended in the exhibition above head height. It seemed to almost dilute the point of making a display all about print if the sculpture is then also included. It seemed almost like an after thought, as it was quite missable at this odd angle above. This same confusing inclusion of a few 3-D pieces continued later on in the exhibition.  Perhaps they should have just been left out of the collection all together.

(Claes Oldenburg, Giant Three-Way Plug, 1970) This sculpture was hung like an after-thought above preparatory prints 

The size and scope of the display is huge, a truly comprehensive survey of print from some of the most famous artists during this time. Covering 200 works from 70 artists, the British Museum has pieces from all of the ‘Greats’: Warhol, Lichtenstein, Johns, Rauschenburg, Ruscha… if you want to spot some of the big names in Pop Art, you won’t be disappointed. It is a great way to expand your understanding of some of the key players, and explore some of their lesser-known studies.

Warhol's Marilyn (1964) are a great way to open the exhibition. They are iconic as well as symbolising Pop Art's interest in print and manipulating reproduction. 

Take Jasper Johns, for instance. This exhibition displays a range of his works that famously focussed on adapting and manipulating the meaning of the American flag. (Read more about that here). Also included are prints reflecting on his Target with Four Faces, a provocative sculpture commenting on homosexuality by having a hinged front which could cover the faces above. By displaying the prints instead of the sculpture, the Museum opens up new understandings of Johns’ artistic process. However, this is perhaps not the best way to first access his work. This angle of showing lesser-known prints of some of these artists is may only be relevant to those who already know and love their works. For visitors who know less about Pop Art or the context of these artists, these prints may fall flat.

Jasper Johns, Target with Four Faces, 1955 (On display were etchings based on this original artwork. Without the context the prints may fall flat.) 

Despite these sometimes confusing elements of the exhibition, it is still worth a visit as the works alone are truly compelling. The vibrant prints are like a time capsule for the decades in which they were created. James Rosenquist’s masterpiece F111 is a highlight, a great opening to the exhibition, capturing the harsh realities of the Vietnam War juxtaposed with the smooth, commercial consumerism of the West. Even without fully understanding the historical context, the bold graphic lines of Pop Art are visually pleasing. Like how we react to billboards and magazines, there is the allure of bright blocks of colour and a straight-forward scene. For those who have grown tired of complicated postmodern installations or repetitive Renaissance retrospectives, this is your exhibition.

Ed Ruscha, Standard Station, 1966 
Ed Ruscha’s Standard Station has been used to market the exhibition, and sums it up well.  You don’t need to be an art historian to appreciate the simplicity of devoting an entire painting to the perfect angles of a gas station. Robert Longo’s monumental Cindy and Eric perfectly catch the atmosphere of 1970s New York, people wearing work suits in the moment of release during dance. As Eric himself told Sotherby’s ‘New York was full of Raw Energy.’

Robert Longo, Cindy and Eric (1974)

Other highlights of the exhibition were the well-placed films. A reel showed the work that goes into creating a print which allowed for better understanding of the pieces on display. Near the end in a separate room was a montage of film from the 60s, covering Kennedy’s assassination to advertisers’ fascination with the female consumer. On the opposite wall was a film which complimented each event or idea with a print from the exhibition. For instance, Kennedy with Warhol’s Jackie II. It was a really successful touch, contextualising the importance and relevance of the exhibition.

Andy Warhol, Jackie II, 1966 

A thought-provoking addition at the end was a collection of prints reflecting on current issues such as race and gender which inspired artists of the 60s-80s and continue to be of importance. Although there are no Dine-like drag portraits of Trump, he is of course an underlying antagonist. Ed Ruscha’s Ghost Station is an unsettling inkless reproduction of his 1966 piece. With this white, embossed print he comments on the passage of time, perhaps memorialising out-dated technology, or reflecting on the continued issues of race lasting from 60s to the present day.

Ed Ruscha, Ghost Station, 2011
Although outside the exhibition, perhaps the final display was the gift shop. With hundreds of reproductions of the prints on canvas bags, postcards, and key rings, it was the ultimate conclusion of art movements that wondered how modern consumerism and mass-production could dilute art. Warhol once said ‘repetition adds up to reputation,’ so it would be interesting to know what he would make of the ‘Warhol Finger Puppets.’

The final display of reproduction and print: the gift shop. 
The American Dream at the British Museum closes on the 18th June.  

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