The American Dream becomes reality... at the British Museum
The UK’s first major exhibition of American printmaking from the 1960s onward is now open. And it’s at the British Museum. Many people have asked why we are the venue for this extraordinary collection of modern and contemporary art. And why America? Why now? What does ‘the American Dream’ mean at the British Museum? In fact, it makes perfect sense – read on to discover why…
It might surprise you that the British Museum holds the UK’s national collection of prints and drawings. It’s a treasure trove of over 2 million works by everyone from Leonardo, Michelangelo and Dürer to Bridget Riley, David Hockney and Andy Warhol. The Museum has always collected contemporary art – in the 1750s this meant Canaletto and Hogarth, and in 2017 it includes works by American artists such as Kara Walker and Ed Ruscha.
Collecting the present is essential to the British Museum’s purpose. Recent acquisitions span the globe, from a Grayson Perry vase to original Japanese manga drawings, and from Indigenous Australian paintings to Jasper Johns’ Flags I (featured on the exhibition poster). Future generations will be able to reflect on these dynamic and turbulent times through these objects.
This exhibition traces the creative momentum of American art from the early 1960s through the medium of printing, charting the rise of movements like minimalism, conceptual art and photorealism, to the practices of living artists working today. More than 200 works by 70 artists are on display, highlighting the creativity of American printmaking that flourished over six decades. Thanks to a deliberate strategy of collecting these artists by our curators, 70% of the works in the show are in the British Museum’s collection. The biggest names in American art are represented: Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Chuck Close, Louise Bourgeois, Andy Warhol, all of whom innovated with printmaking to create some of their most memorable work.
It all starts with pop art, of course. Pop art sits in the public consciousness as representing all that was new and cool in the 60s, but it is not necessarily to everyone’s taste:
‘Surely pop art represents the triumph of superficiality, the death of profundity and careful looking… What, then, is the British Museum, that bastion of careful, scholarly scrutiny, doing warmly embracing and collecting such rubbish?’ Michael Glover, The Independent
With pop art, a revolutionary and enduring change in the production, marketing and consumption of art took place. Inspired by the monumental, bold and colourful imagery of post-war America (particularly the powerful medium of advertising), a young generation of artists created images that defined this period in the popular imagination. Pop art is integral to the story of printmaking, and to the story of America, so the exhibition couldn’t have begun with anything else.
This exhibition has been several years in the making. Nobody could have anticipated the transformative world events that now inevitably shape our visitors’ perceptions of the meaning of ‘the American Dream’.
‘Looking at the art of Jasper Johns, including a print that gives a coat hanger the sublime authority of a Rembrandt portrait, not to mention at Robert Motherwell’s lithographs of abstract expressionist splash-marks or powerfully chaotic prints by Willem de Kooning, I understood two things very clearly. There is such a thing as American civilisation. And we are watching it die.’ Jonathan Jones, The Guardian
The confidence and assertiveness of America in the post-war boom years seems now to have disintegrated, and the very notion of the country’s exceptionalism has been critically questioned by artists. America has always been reinventing itself, and now is the perfect time to seek to understand what ‘the American Dream’ means today.
‘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.’ Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum
The creative momentum unleashed in the 1960s persists to this day. There is also much to celebrate about the present. As you move through the exhibition, the voices represented become increasingly diverse, showcasing the work of women and people of colour, reflecting the changing art world and the advances in social equality over this period.
Every artist in the exhibition – whether they were born in America or made it their home – has their own American Dream, which demands our attention and makes us re-examine our own ideas about this superpower.
‘There is still cause for excitement: the final prints in the exhibition are a set of etchings by the Ethiopian-born American artist Julie Mehretu, in which swirls of complex marks suggest a sense of inchoate energy and, perhaps, optimism, amid challenging, changing times.’ Alastair Sooke, The Telegraph
American artists continue to explore the vital and expressive potential of printmaking as an integral part of their aesthetic, with its ability to reach a broad and diverse audience, and address wider social and political issues.
But don’t take someone else’s word for it – see it for yourself, make up your own mind, and let us know what you think.
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.