The American Dream: Pop to the Present review – blessed be the printmakers

British Museum, London. The American Dream: Pop to the Present is at the British Museum, London until 18 June

By TIM ADAMS, The Guardian, March 12 2017

From Ed Ruscha’s gas station to Jim Dine’s bathrobes, pop art’s vision of boom-time America predicted the demise of the land of the free
Andy Warhol never made a portrait of Donald Trump, though in 1981 the future president asked the pop artist to make a series of paintings of Trump Tower, then under construction. The Tower had special significance for Warhol in that it was built on the site of the Bonwit Teller department store where he got his start making outre window displays in the 1950s. He created eight looming silk screens of the tower in black, silver and gold. When Trump came to Warhol’s Factory studio to view the pictures, however, he expressed unhappiness that they would not co-ordinate with his lobby’s pink and orange soft furnishings. Ivana “promised to bring swatches”, Warhol recorded in his diary, but she never did, and Trump never paid for or took delivery of the pictures he had made – retrospectively, a very bad deal. “It was so strange,” Warhol observed. “These people are so rich, they talked about buying a building for $500m or something…” and then later: “I think Trump’s sort of cheap, though. I get that feeling.” Their paths did not cross again until 1983, when Warhol was invited to judge a cheerleading competition at Trump Tower. He was deliberately two hours late to ruin the event. “I just hate the Trumps because they never bought my portraits,” he wrote.
The 45th American president does not feature directly in the British Museum’s examination of the American dream, seen through the eyes of printmakers from Warhol to the present, but you feel the portents and shadows of his administration at every turn. Some of these reference points seem eerily prophetic. It is hard not to see, for example, Jim Dine’s famous series of self-portraits as an empty bathrobe, made in the 60s, without thinking of the recent image of the president (disputed as #fakenews) in his own version of that garment, railing nightly at cable TV. Dine’s dressing gowns – some limply white, some flamboyantly patterned – look like illustrations of that line from Macbeth that seems most to sum up the first two months of the current presidency: “now does he feel his title hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe upon a dwarfish thief”.

Trump talked on his campaign trail of “the American dream being dead” (in order to cast himself as its resurrector), and if you were looking to capture a cradle-to-grave timeline of this demise, this exhibition would be a good place to start. After the heroic self-made American gestures of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning in the 1950s, pop art always looked like a kind of corrective – a reminder that citizenship of the land of the free came with a price attached; that consumerism bred conformity. In the 1960s many of those first pop images existed on an uncertain border between celebration and cynicism – they adopted the techniques of mass-market advertising to pose questions of value. As such, there was always a doomed and hollow cast to even the most vivid of these prints – Roy Lichtenstein’s cartoon blow-ups; Warhol’s wall of Marilyns; looking at them now they seem presciently apocalyptic. Lichtenstein’s The Melody Haunts My Reverie, in which a teary blond woman croons a line from Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust, recasts American dreams as sentimental cliche, the stuff that tweets and snapchats are made on.
At odds with this scepticism is the collaborative renaissance of the printmaker’s craft itself, which this show wholeheartedly celebrates, and which stands in homemade counterpoint to the implications of mass production. Lichtenstein painstakingly reproduced the Ben-Day dots that made up his comic book material using a stencil and a toothbrush, before employing screenprint techniques to give him the commercial feel he wanted. Warhol’s silk screens may give the appearance of impersonality, but they depended on a great deal of hands-on, labour-intensive craft to create their effects. In a series of short films that punctuate these gallery rooms, the viewer is invited to dwell on the ingenuities of lithography and various pioneering experiments in tinting and engraving that gave the excitement to this art. For a while the studios of Greenwich Village and Los Angeles took on the look of cottage workshops and the feel of medieval guilds. Robert Rauschenberg at first questioned the practice of lithography, wondering whether late 20th-century artists should really be “writing on rocks”. He subsequently displays the zeal of the convert in his extraordinary Stoned Moon series, which bears witness to his first-hand view of the Apollo launch – he was invited as an official artist by Nasa – and takes printmaking beyond new frontiers.
All the optimism dramatised in those images – in Sky Garden, here a collage of dirt-red rocket plans explode into ethereal blue at the top of the two metre print – gives way to something darker and more monochrome in the decades that follow. Unifying dreams fracture into the ghosts of slave-era nightmares, notably in the exacting prints of Kara Walker, who subverts the cut-out silhouettes of picture books with historic barbarities; and in the text-based work of Glenn Ligon, whose stencilled confessional I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background fades inexorably into blackness as it journeys down the page.

Technique feeds sentiment in unexpected ways. From a distance, Jasper Johns’s American flags may look “star spangled” but up close their 30 layers of fragmentary screen-printed colour make them look world-weary and fractured. Bruce Nauman’s back-to-front plans for neons take a few moments of deciphering before delivering scrawled prophecy: “Pay attention motherfuckers”, the opening one reads. Ed Ruscha has long taken that particular imperative to heart, lately concentrating on reproducing rusted road signs of the sub-prime present: Cash for Tools and Dead End. His iconic Standard gas station, with its primary-coloured 1963 confidence, has by 2014, printed white on white, become barely a shadow of its former self and melted into air.



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