Invention and reinvention: Bonnie Greer's reflections on the American Dream
Before Richard Nixon was elected President, my history prof announced one day in class that he (Nixon) would do something to disgrace the Presidency. It was inevitable, he told us.
It seems that Andy Warhol knew this, too.
What strikes me about his Vote McGovern is that it has a demonic quality about it – the something ‘inner’, driven, that Nixon himself couldn’t help but project. The ‘Tricky Dick’ aspect of him.
They say that art always knows and Warhol seems to predict the horror of Watergate itself. He wraps it into a kind of 1950s ‘mom and pop’ corniness – the era of our own coddled childhoods.
Warhol understood consumerism at a profound level, and in Vote McGovern he uses Newsweek as his muse. Why not? It was as American as can be. It is Warhol’s joke… and his warning.
‘The Space Race.’ ‘The Space Race.’
That’s all you heard about as a kid in those days. What did it mean? Partly it was about omnipotence. Americans are raised (or used to be) on the idea of expansion – widening, the frontier. What frontier is bigger than space itself? It was out there, made American.
Rauschenberg seems to revel in the might of the machines – the science – that existed to tame space. Plus, there’s Florida – Cape Kennedy it was called (now Cape Canaveral) – the launch site where these huge missiles could go up and race against the Russians and away from the Vietnam War; and the uprisings in the cities; and the revolts of us – the precious Baby Boomers – kicking and smashing everything in sight.
All of the stuff that’s considered now ‘not done’ – even illegal – didn’t exist in 1971.
There was the Omnipotent Male. Women had to get out from up under that – find a way to name what was keeping us down, and then find a way to express and escape it. My generation grew up with ‘Big Daddies’: there was even a TV show called Father Knows Best!
The wife of the President – The First Lady – had to tell the world her cookie recipe. When Hillary Clinton announced at the beginning of Bill Clinton’s first term that she didn’t bake cookies, a segment of America never forgave her for it.
Kara Walker’s no world has a profound and unsettling beauty. It cannot be conveyed anywhere but in person (true of all of the prints) because you need to experience the depth. The imagery – what is it? Drowning enslaved Africans, trapped in an evil fate? An ocean goddess, accompanying her people across the waves and then lifting them up to shore? A comment on those paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries, celebrating the trafficking of human beings? Or all of this and more. Much more. I stood in front of this print the longest.
In Dead End 2 Ed Ruscha gives us rust and bullets. The Rust Belt. The America that voted for Donald Trump this time. The America looking for a break. Looking for a Dream. Looking for a Wall to protect itself from the 21st century. Through this print you can see the burnt-out towns, the deserted factories, the places looking to Jesus and for a break. To paraphrase the biblical passage: ‘Remember, man, that thou are rust. And unto rust thou shall return.’
The thing is this: America is a narrative. Every American has an idea, an image, a story about the nation in her head, in her heart. That idea; that notion and that feeling evolves every day; every moment.
The US is the first invented nation… and it’s always in the process of becoming. Its art reflects this becoming and… and is its becoming.
The prints continue to reveal themselves. Long, long after I’ve seen them.
Long, long after.
These works are all featured in the special exhibition The American Dream: pop to the present (9 March – 18 June 2017).
Sponsored by Morgan Stanley.
Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.
Explore the unprecedented scale, boldness and ambition of American printmaking since the 1960s with American Dream: pop to the present, the fascinating book published to accompany the exhibition available in the Museum shops and online.