In 2014, when Stephen Coppel first spoke with me about his planned show on contemporary American prints, the title – The American Dream – seemed succinct and evocative. It swept together the exuberance of American pop, the pragmatic purity of American minimalism, the nostalgia and disquiet of postmodernism, and even made an ironic nod to the racism and inequity that underlay the Dream, even at its most convincing. Further, there was the echo of Jasper Johns’ claim that the idea of painting the American flag – a painting that changed the way we think about what art is and does – had come to him in a dream. (Johns’s 1973 Flags I screenprint, which emblazons the exhibition’s posters and catalogue, is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful descendants of that painting.)
But by 2017, the phrase ‘the American Dream’ had become vastly more fraught. A thesaurus-ful of bleak near-relations present themselves (Illusion? Delusion? Nightmare?). And this made things complicated when I came to give a talk on the American Dream shortly after the show opened.
The exhibition itself is a triumph. It captures decisively one of the great half-centuries in the history of art – ambitious, adventurous, self-aware and socially alert. But to American eyes, the trajectory is freighted with a certain Moby-Dick quality: epic in scope; irreverent, erudite and sublime; hedonistic and moralising in the same breath; a brilliant juggernaut that lurches, eyes wide open, toward calamity. Observant visitors can even trace a nautical motif through the galleries, from Claes Oldenburg’s serenely dysfunctional Floating Three-Way Plug (1976), to Vija Celmin’s implacable Ocean Surface Woodcut 1992 (1992), to the haunted slave ships of Willie Cole (Stowage, 1997) and Kara Walker (No World, 2010) – an arc not dissimilar to Melville’s.
In the end, I chose to wrap my talk around the Bruce Nauman’s salty, epithet-laden, Pay Attention (1973). The print is a dynamic, recursive puzzle: the backwards, stammering letters slow our reading of words whose essence is urgency – words that demand, in the rudest possible terms, that we pay attention, but to what? The print points nowhere but to itself. Pay attention to paying attention.
And that, I have come to think, is the directive that made American art great.
When Roy Lichtenstein enlarged those half-tone dots, he was directing attention to a concrete reality designed to escape notice (in commercial printing the dots are supposed to disappear). In the art gallery, where we’ve been taught to look past the surface of things to seek out their meaning, Lichtenstein asked us instead to pay attention to what we actually see. The art and artists that followed – conceptual or minimal, neo-expressionist or photo-realist – sought out the overlooked and invented strategies for making it visible.
And no artist has more deftly cajoled us into considering both idea and illusion, the medium and to the message, than Ed Ruscha. So when, near the end of the exhibition, we come across Ruscha’s Ghost Station (2011) – a colourless, elegiac, embossed echo of his vibrant Standard Station (1967) seen a few rooms earlier – it feels like an epigraph: America, blanched of everything but the memory of its former glory.
But this is too tidy an interpretation. The truth is that the most powerful artworks here – from Johns to Nauman to Celmins to Ruscha to the nimble etchings by Julie Mehretu that close the show, are paeans to uncertainty and incompleteness. To pay attention to paying attention is to open an infinite loop, not to locate a coherent answer.
When, partway through Moby-Dick, the narrator abandons his attempt at a complete cetacean taxonomy, he comes to a similar realisation: ‘God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught – nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!’
And there it is: the American Dream.
The exhibition The American Dream: pop to the present runs at the Museum until 18 June 2017.
Sponsored by Morgan Stanley.
Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.
Buy the book to explore the unprecedented scale, boldness and ambition of American printmaking since the 1960s.
You can also browse a range of products inspired by the works in the exhibition, including a range of prints.