‘One from Many’ is the meaning of the United States’ national motto ‘E Pluribus Unum’. It sums up aspirations of national unity and moral example that have been challenged, and changed, in the past sixty years. The optimism of the early 1960s has been transformed into the fraying of America, with raging culture wars symbolised by such things as the Black Lives Matter campaign. This exhibition gives us a chance to chart that disintegration and ask questions about the way American society has altered dramatically. But it’s not only noteworthy for its social and political themes. It also concentrates on a form of artistic presentation that took off in this period with important results for art: printmaking.
The early 1960s was a period in American history which radiated hopefulness. The country was experiencing a boom in prosperity after the hardships of the Depression, and also still mindful of its military successes against Nazi Germany and Japan (regularly celebrated by Hollywood). This era was captured by Pop Art. This celebrated the art of, what was then, popular – comic strips, advertising imagery – so was just right for this time. Also, its content was recognisable. It appealed to ordinary people and – once they’d been given a theory to hold about it in order to avoid the dread charge of liking popular taste – critics alike. Pop Art was advertising art. Maximum visual impact was – is – part of the language of advertising. Meanwhile, printmaking enabled bright, colourful and varied material to be produced easily. So it was appropriate that artists from this time onwards adopted it as a way of conveying their particular interpretations of the American experience over the next sixty years (and, from the 1960s onwards, the growth of an affluent American middle class which could afford prints also helped kick-start the development of the process).
At first, the glossy commercial spirit of Pop reigned unchallenged. Jasper Johns could use it as a way of playing about with conventional artistic depictions, turning images into signs. Andy Warhol – dubbed the Pope of Pop – produced prints showing such things as an electric chair and, later on, ones of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe. Ed Ruscha kept the Pop tradition alive with his images of gasoline stations to symbolise what he felt was the dramatic, even mysterious, nature of the American landscape: high-octane glitz contrasted with – and emphasised – the unnerving emptiness of deserts. But the times – as Bob Dylan would point out – were a-changin’. Robert Rauschenberg’s Retroactive I (1964), using contemporary images dominated by – unsurprisingly – one of the recently-assassinated President Kennedy, can be seen as a precursor of that change.
The humiliating military debacle of Vietnam, combined with the economic hardships of the early 1970s resulting from the conflict in the Middle East, helped to speed-up the process of social decay. More disturbing changes were to follow, a result of the culture wars on feminism, race, religion and sexuality which were to bring about splits in American society. Indeed, some might say that those wars simply exacerbated issues which had always been latent in that nation, but which had been repressed by a dominant White Anglo-Saxon Protestant hegemony. America was no longer seen by its internal critics as a special country, with its own chosen destiny to bring enlightenment to others. It did not possess what was termed exceptionalism. Americans had ceased to be a chosen people, but were instead a series of fragmented – and fragmenting – communities in crisis as they warred with each other (and, indeed, warred internally too, especially in the arts, media and academic worlds) – Blacks against Whites, Feminists against Traditionalists, Secularists against Christians. This was reflected in a new range of artistic subjects.
Printmaking featured in the resulting new artistic explorations of race and feminism. Take race. Kara Walker’s works have dealt-with the tensions and power-plays of gender and racial issues, often causing controversy and – although she is a woman of colour – causing her to be criticised for showing supposedly negative images of Blackness due to the seemingly light-hearted cavortings depicted within her work. Artist Willie Cole produced a woodblock print, entitled Stowage (1997), which was based on nineteenth-century illustrations of Africans stowed on slave ships. Feminist work? Louise Bourgeois is well-known mainly for her sculptures, most famously a large spider entitled Maman. Less well-known is her series of prints called The Fragile, a series of self-portraits spanning youth to old age and dealing with her feelings about motherhood and vulnerability – not topics that increasingly youth-fixated societies might always find comfortable. Former advertising agency artist Ida Applebroog uses images of sex, violence and gender identity, not for entertainment but to create disturbing scenarios with irony and black humour.
Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum, sums up succinctly the message of this exhibition: ‘The American Dream is an extremely exciting project for the British Museum, highlighting the extraordinary holdings of American prints and drawings in the collection. The Museum has been building up this collection of modern and contemporary works since the hugely successful exhibition The American Scene: Prints from Hopper to Pollock in 2008. We are very grateful to Morgan Stanley and the Terra Foundation for helping us to stage this ambitious show. With a new administration establishing itself in Washington, it feels like an apposite moment to consider how artists have reflected America as a nation over 60 tumultuous years.’
In what future ways will American art develop? To take a phrase from the Hollywood film industry, ‘nobody knows anything’. Predictions in art are tricky, especially about what may come from America in its present state of socio-political development. What we can do is hope that future work from this nation’s artists shows the same vitality, and willingness to engage with controversial subjects, that has been demonstrated there since the 1960s.