The American Dream-Pop to the Present – Exhibition at the British Museum


Having been to the curator’s talk a few weeks ago I was keen to see this exhibition at the British Museum and relate my feelings about it to the intentions of the curator. The exhibition gives an opportunity to see the British Museum’s extensive collection of modern and contemporary American prints along with a number borrowed from other collections.

The exhibition starts with some of Warhol’s famous screenprint series – those of Marilyn Monroe but also those of the electric chair. I found the electric chair series really quite moving – this instrument of death portrayed in isolation, with various coloured prints used to give a different view of the subject. The final print was different from the others, with red lines hand-painted onto the screenprint. To me this emphasised the deathly nature of the chair and Warhol’s deliberate intervention on this last image seemed a deliberate act in boosting this point.

The exhibition is set out in a series of themes as outlined in the curator’s talk. Starting with a theme of Pop Art exhibition ends with themes of politics, racism and sexism. I was particularly taken with Warhol’s Vote McGovern – where Richard Nixon is portrayed with a green skin, piercing orange eyes and yellow lips, with the words vote McGovern scrawled underneath. The Guerrilla Girls posters also strongly make the point of the treatment of women artists by major galleries and museums. (It would be interesting to work out the percentage of female artists in this exhibition!)

As Alistair Sooke points out in his review in the Telegraph “where the exhibition excels is in demonstrating the vigour of the fledging world of American printmaking during the 60s”. I also liked his comment that Rauschenberg’s Sky Garden “places printmaking on a par with history painting”. It is produced on a huge scale conveying the Apollo 11 mission with a range of references both to the mission itself and its effect. I think this print alone achieves one of the exhibition’s main aims described by Sooke as “the desire to prove that printmaking isn’t peripheral, but as experimental and profoundly brilliant as any other art form”.

Sooke attributes the decision to devote this exhibition to printmaking as a way of addressing the fact that it is marginalised and “the poor relation of art history, low down in the pecking order below painting, sculpture and drawing”. I think this exhibition definitely challenges that point.