American Dream: the best designed exhibition I’ve ever been to

The American Dream: Pop to the Present is, I think, the best designed exhibition I’ve ever been to. (I may, of course, forgotten better designed ones.) The exhibition at the British Museum tells the recent history of the United States through prints. It’s in 12 sections, each beautifully laid out so that everything can be seen clearly and logically. You move effortlessly through the story. Cuts in the walls mean you can look backwards and forwards as you move through the exhibition, recognising how new periods are inspired by old periods and how old prints look forward to new ones. In one room images from recent American history (the assassination of Kennedy, man landing on the moon, etc) are projected on one wall while another wall shows prints reflecting those times and events. There are short films of artists speaking about their work and films about techniques.

It’s more than a month since I visited the exhibition but only now have I found time to write about it. Photographs were not allowed, but I made notes of pictures that attracted me and have now found them (or a closely related picture) on the web. I encountered many artists I didn’t know at the exhibition, and reviewing the pictures now has been like revisiting the exhibition; and I’ve already blogged twice about the exhibition–once about a lecture before the exhibition opened https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2017/02/28/two-prints-i-long-to-see/ and once about a chilling print of the American Medical Association. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2017/05/20/a-print-of-the-american-medical-association-for-tessa/

The exhibition begins with this quote from Andy Warhol about the American Dream:

“Everybody has their own America, and then they have pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there but they can’t see…So the fantasy corners of America…you’ve pieced them together from scenes in movies and music and lines from books. And you live in your dream America that you’ve custom-made from art and schmaltz and emotions just as much as you live in your real one.”

After probably more than a hundred trips to the US and having lived in California for a year, I certainly have my own ideas of America–bit this exhibition enhanced them. Here are the artists and prints I picked out.

I’d never heard of Tom Wessellman, but his prints in primary colours manage the unusual combination of being both funny and erotic.

Wesselman

Jim Dine’s print of an empty raincoat is an unusual self-portrait. There are days when we all feel like an empty raincoat.

Dine empty coat

In his self-portrait Robert Rauschenberg, whose recent Tate exhibition I liked https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2017/02/26/robert-rauschenberg-even-more-creative-than-picasso/ , depicts himself as a skeleton. We all need to be conscious of the skeleton inside us, our own death waiting to emerge.

Rauschenberg self portrait

Ed Ruscha’s Big Dipper Over the Desert celebrates the wide open spaces and big skies of America’s West.

ed-ruscha-big-dipper-over-desert,-1982

Bruce Nauman presented the word “malice” in many forms. There is and was malice in America.

Nauman malice

Richard Estes presents a shiny America full of empty doors but devoid of people.

Estes

I’d never heard the term “figurative expressionism,” but Chicken could wear the mantle. Richard Artschwager is an example.

richard_artschwager_sailors_d5792550g

Perhaps Philip Pearlstein is one too.

Phillip Pearlstein

Warhol’s picture of Mao and Johnson, two clown tyrants, packs a tremendous punch, as does Chris Burden’s Atomic Alphabet. These are both Cold War prints.

Drag - Johnson and Mao 1967 by Jim Dine born 1935

Atmic alphabet

I enjoyed Holzer’s inflammatory essays–“Ruin yourself before they fucking do”…”Rejoice our times are intolerable”–might right now be posted in West London. But they were originally posted around Manhattan at the end of the 70s.

Holzer inflammatory essay

Dottie Astie was another artist I’d never heard of, but I liked the book she had prepared from one of my favourite paintings, Bronzino’s Allegory of Love. The pages carried prints of bits of the painting and worked well.

Dottie Attie1

Dottie Attie 2

Mel Bochner’s glorious colour print Going Out of Business is another print for our times. The impact comes from the contrast between the gloom of the message and the joy of the colour.

Going Out Of Business

The Guerrilla Girls poster made me laugh and think, a good combination.

Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? 1989 by Guerrilla Girls

And last of all Jasper Johns’s Numbers, which looked beautiful in the exhibition.

IMG_1364.JPG

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Everybody has their own America, and then they have pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there but they can’t see…So the fantasy corners of America…you’ve pieced them together from scenes in movies and music and lines from books. And you live in your dream America that you’ve custom-made from art and schmaltz and emotions just as much as you live in your real one.”

 

 

 

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One thought on “American Dream: the best designed exhibition I’ve ever been to

  1. Pingback: Disappointed by the Hokusai exhibition: close examination of a book would be better | Richard Smith's non-medical blogs

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