The American Dream: pop to the present @ the British Museum

American prints

The first thing to emphasise is that this is an exhibition of American prints, so it might have been more accurate and factual to have titled the show ‘American Prints’ rather than ‘The American Dream’. The latter title leaves open the possibility that the exhibition includes oil paintings or sculptures, the whole range of artistic media. It also suggests that the selection will be somehow presenting a historical or political or cultural analysis of ‘the American Dream’- and, when it increasingly does this, in the second half of the exhibition, it introduces political and social issues which, I think a) increasingly distract from the art as art and b) are surprisingly limited.

The title, these later political galleries, and even the introduction by exhibition sponsor, the global financial services firm Morgan Stanley – for whom the show ‘charts the story of the modern Western world as seen through the lens of the United States’ – are designed to stimulate the visitor to reflect on the post-war history of America. I have expressed my views in a separate blog post; this post focuses on just the prints themselves.

The American Dream: pop to the present

The British Museum has one of the biggest collections of prints in the world, with more than two million in storage. This huge, beautifully laid out and imaginatively designed exhibition sets out to showcase:

‘the Museum’s outstanding collection of modern and contemporary American prints for the first time… shown with important works from museums and private collections around the world.’

Flags I. Colour screenprint (1973) by Jasper Johns. Gift of Johanna and Leslie Garfield, on loan from the American Friends of the British Museum. © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2016. © Tom Powel Imaging

Flags I (1973). Colour screenprint by Jasper Johns. Gift of Johanna and Leslie Garfield, on loan from the American Friends of the British Museum. © Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2016. © Tom Powel Imaging

The American boom in prints

The exhibition covers American prints from the last 60 years. Why that particular period?

A revolutionary and enduring change in the production, marketing and consumption of prints took place in the 1960s. Inspired by the monumental, bold and eye-catching imagery of post-war America, a young generation of artists took to printmaking with enthusiasm, putting it on an equal footing with painting and sculpture and matching their size, bright colour and impact. Meanwhile, the growth of an affluent middle class in urban America also opened a booming market for prints that was seized upon by enterprising publishers, print workshops and artists. Artists were encouraged to create prints in state-of-the-art workshops newly established on both the East and West Coast. The widening audience for prints also attracted some to use the medium as a means for expressing pungent, sometimes dissenting, opinions on the great social issues of the day.

It is also relevant that this exhibition is a sequel. In 2008 the Museum held a big show titled The American Scene: Prints from Hopper to Pollock, which ended at the turn of the Sixties i.e. where this one begins. Both shows were curated by Stephen Coppel, the Museum’s curator of modern prints and drawings.

This exhibition consists of twelve rooms, which take us through American prints from the early 1960s to the present day, each room focusing on a particular group of artists, periods or themes – Pop in the first few rooms, minimalism half way through, the ’80s, and then onto contemporary issues like race, AIDS and feminism in the final three.

Gumball Machine, colour linocut (1970) by Wayne Thiebaud © Wayne Thiebaud/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2016

Gumball Machine (1970) colour linocut by Wayne Thiebaud © Wayne Thiebaud/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2016

The process of print-making

Wall labels for separate eras (the 1990s) or groups (the Minimalists) or for individual works, shed light on the multifarious techniques of print making – etching, lithographs, working with stone, wood or silk – along with the micro-histories of the many workshops and businesses set up across the States to cater to the growing market for prints, like Universal Limited Editions in Long Island (est. 1957) and Gemini set up in Los Angeles in 1966.

Half-way through the show there are two big video installations showing artists actually creating prints, including Andy Warhol working with silk prints and Ed Ruscha creating his Dead End signs. A later video includes interview snippets with Lichtenstein, Ruscha, Chuck Close, Kiki Smith, Glenn Ligon and Julie Mehreti.

Interesting though these were, they were really snippets from longer films and so, for example, although I saw Warhol and an assistant running a wooden block up and down a print presumably to press paint into the paper, I still didn’t understand how a silk screen print is made and had to look it up on YouTube.

Standard Station. Colour screenprint (1966) by Edward Ruscha. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. © Ed Ruscha. Reproduced by permission of the artist

Standard Station (1966) Colour screenprint by Edward Ruscha. The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. © Ed Ruscha. Reproduced by permission of the artist

The exhibition room-by-room

Room 1 Pop art

The early 1960s saw an explosion of artists incorporating the imagery of consumer culture, adverts, movie posters, newspaper photos and so on, adapted whole, or cut up into collages, or remodelled into huge spoof cartoons. The first room (and arguably the entire exhibition) is dominated by Andy Warhol and his genius for identifying stand-out iconic imagery. One wall is covered by ten enormous silk prints of Marilyn Monroe (1962), plus the original poster for the 1953 movie Niagara, which inspired them.

Opposite them is a set of ten prints depicting the electric chair (1964) along with the source photo.

Lining another wall is an enormous 86-foot-long print by James Rosenquist called F-111 (1964), a characteristic hymn to gleaming chrome technology and itself an epitome of America’s super-confidence: Bigger. Brighter. Shinier.

There’s a so-so print of Claes Oldenburg’s Three way plug (1970) beside which is hanging the only non-print in the show, an enormous wooden sculpture of the same object suspended from the ceiling.

It’s the 1960s, pre-feminism and awash with kitsch ads and comics from the 1950s, so American babes can be celebrated without guilt, as in Tom Wesselman’s series The Great American Nude (1963). Work on numerous iterations of  this image took up most of Wesselman’s 60s, in fact the final, hundredth, version was only published in 1973. It is odd that an exhibition which (later on) features feminist artists being very cross about the sexual objectification of women opens with such a glaring example.

Next to them is king of comic art, Roy Lichtenstein’s Reverie (1965) hanging alongside is one of his canonical action cartoon-paintings, Sweet Dreams, Baby! (1965).

Repetition 

The obvious thing about prints is not only that they can be run off in large numbers to be sold and owned by a potentially limitless audience – but, as Warhol above all else discovered – they can also be repeated with deliberate variations, in detail, design or colouring.

Warhol dominates the field with his series of iconic silk prints of Marilyn, Mao, Elvis and so on, but it is striking the way so many of the other artists shown here, right up to the present day, conceived of their prints as parts of sets or series on specific topics, themes, images, issues. This is not possible in painting; it is an artistic option only really available in print.

What is it about these repetitions and iterations, – something unnerving, subverting, and yet mythologising at the same time? All those Marilyns become shallower and shallower and yet simultaneously more and more powerful. Ditto Jasper John’s obsessive reiterations of the American flag or Jim Dine’s multiple series of household tools – Repetition equals… what? Maybe we need a perceptual psychologist to explain what they do to the brain.

Room 2 Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Jim Dine

Jasper Johns comes from an earlier generation than Warhol. He began his blank-faced paintings of humdrum objects in the 1950s. He repeatedly uses motifs of numbers, letters and words, generally working in large sets or series which showcase all the types of variations which print-making produces: there are so many variations on Flags I and Flags II it’s difficult to decide which is the ‘key’ example (see first illustration, above). There are also sets devoted to: Grey alphabetNumbers, Targets.

There’s something about the blankness and the obviousness of these subjects which suggests a kind of zombieness of American culture. I like that Johns has rarely if ever commented or interpreted his work. There it is. The flag. Letters. Numbers imposed over each other (the Colour Numeral series). Make of them what you will. Johns started in the mid-50s and is represented well into the ’80s.

Robert Rauschenberg was recently given a massive and hugely enjoyable retrospective at Tate Modern. His prints are as great as everything else he did. Here he is represented by some works from his Stoned moon series, a set of 33 lithographs which he created in response to the manned Apollo flights to the moon (Rauschenberg was actually invited by NASA to be the official Moonshot artist). Make a collage of press photos and technical diagrams. Run off prints of it using different colour washes. Voila!

Sky garden at 2.2 metres tall broke the record for the largest hand-printed lithograph of the day. Bigger. Brighter. Shinier.

Sky Garden from Stoned Moon. Colour lithograph and screenprint (1969) by Robert Rauschenberg © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, New York

Sky Garden from the Stoned Moon series (1969) Colour lithograph and screenprint by Robert Rauschenberg © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, New York

One of the Stoned moon variations is Sky rite – I like the blurred, half-obliterated image of the NASA technician pointing to the skies. The selection, the arrangement and then the partial obliteration of these bold clear photos and designs by pencil lines and colour washes say so much – about dynamism and thrusting confidence, but at the same time somehow about those things being eclipsed and washed out – so much that is difficult to put into words – as art should. Nearby was one of another large series based on X-rays of his own body, Booster (1967).

Jim Dine seems to have rejected big grandiose subjects and concentrated on the here and now, banal household objects, a kind of artistic William Carlos Williams. I liked his series about Paintbrushes (1973), showing different numbers of paintbrushes lined up neatly, but with different amounts of sketching, light and shade in each one. Here we had examples of the ‘first state’, ‘third state’ and ‘sixth state’, presumably as the image became more worked over, scarred and scratched and busy. The more you look, the more beguiling they become.

Given the same treatment are images of a saw, hammers – each becoming strangely luminous, charged with meaning – or just beautiful by virtue of the deadpan depiction of their wonderful functional design. Nearby is one of the extensive series he made of his own dressing gown (1975), for me redolent of the cocaine and rock star 1970s. Why not?

There is a kind of wonderful emptiness about so many of these images. They shoot through the retina and flood the image-recognition centres of the brain as a MacDonald’s hamburger floods the hungry palate, pushing all the big obvious buttons. Lots of fun, but taken together, somehow hinting at a huge emptiness, at the isolated unhappiness which has been the subject of so much American fiction these last 60 years.

Room 4 Made in California – the West Coast experience

The next room swaps focus to the West Coast, to the California of swimming pools and endless sunshine.

  • Claes Oldenburg Profile airflow (1969) an intriguing three-dimensional relief print made of polyurethane.
  • Ed Ruscha – an artist of the archetypal post-War west, with its highways, gas stations and huge signs – Every building on Sunset Strip (1966), Hollywood (1968), Sin (1970), Whiskers (1972) Made in California (1971)
  • Wayne Thiebaud – Careful etchings and linotypes of colourful fatty American sweets –Gumball machine (see above), Boston cremes (1962), Suckers state (1968)
  • Robert Bechtle’s quiet depictions of California suburbs, mostly empty of people with only a parked car suggesting human presence – Burbank Street – Alameda 1 (1967), 60 T-Bird (1967), Alamedo Carrera (1967) cars which make me think of the movies Bullitt (1968) or Dirty Harry (1971)
  • Bruce Naumann – a harsh negative vision obsessed with the power of words, not phrases, just potent words, arranged forwards and backwards, often in slanting italics, often in harsh black and white – Clear vision (1973), Malice (1980)

Talk on the wall label of clear blue skies and swimming pools made me think of David Hockney and, turning a corner, who do we find! Hockney is another great fan of sets and series:

Room 5 Persistence of abstraction – gestural and hard-edge 1960s-1970s

Pop was seen by many as an anecdote to the angst and bleak psychologising of 1950s Abstract Expressionism (as recently displayed at a major retrospective at the Royal Academy). This room shows how some print-makers continued, despite the shiny externalities of real life celebrated by Pop, to experiment with abstract shapes, and blurs and swirls of paint.

Walking into this room after the previous four was like walking into the screening of some European art movie after spending a couple of hours watching Star Wars and chomping on popcorn. It required quite a change of pace to calm down from the big bright, super-colourful and, above all, instantly recognisable imagery of Pop, to get back to grips with more abstract experiments in colour, texture and design.

Room 6 Minimalism and conceptualism from the 1970s

The sobering up process continued in the next room with a sample of the very black and white, minimalist aesthetic which came in in the early 1970s, as a reaction against everything bright and shiny. I very much like the sculptures of American minimalism – many of which can be seen in Tate Modern – but my palette had been so spoilt by the Mickey Mouse pleasures of the preceding rooms that I found it hard to tune in to their subtleties.

Room 7 Photorealism – Portraits and landscapes

Apparently there was a revival in the 1970s of the deeply unfashionable genre of portraiture.

Of the landscapes I liked Craig McPherson’s Yankee stadium at night (1983), a powerful and absorbing image because it is in fact so entirely figurative. Best things in the room were prints of the hyper-realistic / ‘photorealistic’ paintings done by Richard Estes, from his Urban Landscape series.

Room 8 The figure reasserted

Had the figure ever been away? Well figurative depictions of the human form were grouped together in this room, though often in a stilted or deliberately naive style – maybe a refreshing change after the blank coolness of ’70s minimalism.

The standout images were to almost life size prints wonderfully capturing a fully-clothed man and woman in the act of dancing, writhing, jiving.

  • Robert Longo – Eric (1985) from the Men in the cities series. Cindy (2002)

Room 9 – Politics and dissent

Once again Warhol trumps the room with his fabulous silk prints of Nixon and Mao (1972), alongside the more subdued print of Jackie II (1966).

Vote McGovern, Colour screenprint (1972) by Andy Warhol © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

Vote McGovern (1972) Colour screenprint by Andy Warhol © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London

Note these dates, though. This is very old protest. Johnson? Nixon? Beautiful, striking, imaginative but – old.

The Politics and dissent room segues into a room about AIDS which was first clinically observed in the United States in 1981. The 1980s was, therefore, among other things, the decade in which medical investigation of the condition went hand in hand with growing public awareness, with attempts to overcome the stigma of illness and then lobby for more research to be done. This room features prints by gay artists responding to the crisis.

Room 10 Feminism, gender and the body

Big Daddy with Hats (1971) Colour screenprint by May Stevens © May Stevens. Reproduced by permission of the artist and Mary Ryan Gallery, New York

Big Daddy with Hats (1971) Colour screenprint by May Stevens © May Stevens. Reproduced by permission of the artist and Mary Ryan Gallery, New York

I found a lot of this work a little understated, almost amateurish. The correctness of your beliefs or vehemency of your faith don’t of themselves make for particularly interesting art.

For a palette spoiled by big shiny consumer images, the most immediate impact in this room was made by the sharp, advert-based images of the Guerrilla Girls.

If Pop in the ’60s cut up and pasted cheesy adverts, the GGs in the ’80s create what amount to striking ads in their own right. They’re still very active.

Room 11 Race and identity – Unresolved histories

The inclusion of a room of Feminist art and a room of Black art gives the visitor a strong sense of the academic background of the exhibition’s organisers. I’m not saying they’re not big issues, but the inclusion of these issues, and only these issues, at the end of the show reflects their dominance of academic life and university campuses and doesn’t necessarily reflect the major social, economic and technological upheavals of the last 30 years.

Stowage. Woodcut on Japanese paper (1997) by Willie Cole © Willie Cole. Reproduced by permission of the artist courtesy of Alexander and Bonin Publishing, New York

Stowage (1997) Woodcut on Japanese paper by Willie Cole © Willie Cole. Reproduced by permission of the artist courtesy of Alexander and Bonin Publishing, New York

In this room the standout artist for me is Kara Walker, with her stylised black and white silhouettes of slave figures. I’ve seen an exhibition of these before, so there’s an element of recognition and familiarity in my positive response. Coming towards the end of a rather exhausting exhibition featuring over 200 images, the clarity, purity of line and savage humour of her work sets her apart.

But it is also capable of a strange dreamlike quality, fantasias of colour, exploitation, journeying across the seas, converting history into eerie illustrations for a very grown-up set of fairy tales.

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

Room 12 Signs of the times

The wall label in this last room mentions 9/11 and the financial crash of 2008 but addresses neither of them directly. Instead the 12 prints in this concluding section comment obliquely on the sense of America’s economic decline, or at least the decline of traditional industries and jobs. Commercial collapse, bankruptcy and anomie. The unwinding of America.

It is a depressing conclusion, but it follows logically from the AIDS, feminism and black rooms. Somewhere in the 1980s America began to hate itself and look for someone to blame. A lot of the AIDS images are angry at the slowness of medical research into the condition, the stigma attached to it, Reaganite persecution of gays, the slander of calling it a ‘gay plague’. The feminist room is full of anger at the Patriarchy, at the countless ways women have been suppressed, silenced, objectified and abused. And the black room is also angry at the grotesque abomination of slavery, the slave trade, the systematic abuse of millions of men, women and children bought and sold like cattle, worked to death, raped and murdered and ongoing discrimination against people of colour, police shootings of black men, the huge black prison population.

A sympathetic reading of these three rooms leaves the visitor shaken and exhausted, and this final small downbeat section matches your mood with images of an America which has somehow reached the end of the line. The breezy confidence of the 1960s has evaporated. Gays, blacks and women are just the most vocal of the groups attacking a culture which seems on its knees.

The most haunting image, deliberately and carefully chosen to end the show, is Ed Ruscha’s reprise of his 1966 brilliant iconic image of a gas station – now redone in pure white, emptied out, a ghost of itself. In fact one of the stylish ‘windows’ cut here and there into the exhibition walls, means you can look directly back into the earlier gallery where the 1966 print is hanging and compare the two.

The hollowing out, the blanking of Ghost station suggests that the chrome-plated consumer paradise depicted in thePop art of the 1960s has become a drug-addicted, derelict shell of itself.

What happened? Where did it all go wrong? And if Donald Trump is the answer, what on earth is the question?


Post script 1: The elephant in the room

This is a panoramic and exciting exhibition which brings together many of the biggest names in American art, alongside lesser-known but just as interesting artists, to give a vivid sense of the boundless experimentation and creativity of this huge country. Above all it successfully stakes a claim for print as a medium as creative, varied and beautiful as painting or sculpture. You exit the show, mind ringing with all kinds of images, ideas, issues and reflections.

For me, at the end, one big question stood out. The exhibition’s publicity encourages us to combine the art with history and politics, to experience post-war American history through these artists’ eyes. Which is why it seems to me extraordinary that there is only one throwaway mention of the single most important event in 21st century American history – 9/11.

From this traumatic attack stem the War on Terror, the Patriot Act, the war in Afghanistan and the ill-fated invasion of Iraq, the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, official defence of waterboarding and torture at Guantanamo Bay, further acts of domestic terrorism, along with armed interventions in Libya and Syria and the ever-increasing use of drone attacks.

All these events have contributed hugely to the sense contemporary America has of being embattled and threatened by forces it doesn’t understand and can’t contain, to the tide of anxiety and xenophobia which helped Donald Trump to the White House. It seems to me extraordinary that an exhibition which at least in part claims to survey American history ‘to the present’ omits this seismic subject.

Surely there are American artists making prints on these subjects – 9/11 is burned into our minds as a set of horrible images, not to mention iconic images of Osama bin Laden’s face, Saddam’s statue being pulled down, the torture victims in Abu Ghraib, drones cruising the skies. I can’t believe that scores of American artists haven’t addressed these issues and haven’t mined these images for creative purposes.

Why aren’t they here?

Postscript 2: Native Americans

The feminist artists complain about the oppression of women in general, of women artists in particular, of the suppression of their stories and experiences by the Patriarchy, which women artists are only now bravely telling. The black artists complain about the oppression of Africans, the brutality meted out to slaves, the suppression of their narratives and stories, which black artists are only now exploring.

My son asked me, So where’s the room for Native Americans? There isn’t one. Why not? If there aren’t many Native American artists, why not? Isn’t that a bit of an issue? And if there truly aren’t many Native American artists, doesn’t that mean that any history of America told through its art will inevitably privilege European forms of expression and necessarily exclude the voice and experience of its original inhabitants?

In between the endless artworks, books, documentaries and conferences about gender and the body or slavery and the black experience – just possibly the occasional mention should be made of the original inhabitants of this huge continent who were almost exterminated and the survivors shunted to the edge of American life and for so long written out of the American story. And – in this exhibition at least – are still written out of the American story.

No Native American artists? No Native American print makers? No Native American narratives or stories? Not even one solitary mention of them? No.

Gays, blacks, women – these are the academically-approved minorities, the groups which have their own political movements and voices, novels, plays, movies, Hollywood stars lobbying for them, TV shows about them, and art and criticism and exhibitions and academic papers and dissertations and conferences and books devoted to them, which are, in other words, part of the state-approved cultural discourse.

As for the original victims of European colonisation? Silence. Absence. Invisibility…


The video

Related links

Newspaper reviews of The American Dream

Reviews of other British Museum shows

Performing for the Camera @ Tate Modern

Performing for the Camera examines the relationship between photography and performance, from the invention of photography in the 19th century to the selfie culture of today. Bringing together over 500 images spanning 150 years, the exhibition engages with the serious business of art and performance, as well as the humour and improvisation of posing for the camera. (Press release)

This is a good exhibition to visit if you like arty photographs or bare boobs. Several points emerged:

Saturation

1) 500 images across 14 rooms is too many to take in: either you begin skipping whole walls of images in search of something, anything, novel and distracting, or you’d have to give each image and each set of photos a really thorough scientific scrutiny, but be prepared to come back on several visits.

2) This links into the broader thought that almost all these images come from the golden era before the internet. Nowadays, we are bombarded, saturated, awash in countless billions of images, as well as being able to take limitless selfies with our phones and tablets, to crop and treat them an infinite number of ways, to post them in a million places or send them to anyone, anywhere. The images on show here come from Before The Fall, from when taking photographs was an achievement, a distinction, and they carry a certain aura of privilege and authenticity.

Boris Mikhailov, Crimean Snobbism (1982) Courtesy of the artist and Sprovieri Gallery, London. © Boris Mikhailov

Boris Mikhailov, Crimean Snobbism (1982) Courtesy of the artist and Sprovieri Gallery, London. © Boris Mikhailov

People It’s fairly obvious but took a while to sink in that the exhibition’s focus on photography and performance dictates that the images are overwhelmingly of the human body, clothed or unclothed. No buildings, trees, landscapes, cars, architecture, nature, seas or forests. 500 photos, almost all of them black and white, of people people people. You can get a bit bored of photos of people.

Performance Also, strikingly, there were relatively few photos of what most people might first think of when they hear the word ‘performance’ – almost no photos of actual theatrical or film performances, no famous actors or performers.

Art stars, yes – Warhol, Koons, Beuys, Man Ray, Duchamp. But this is ‘performance’ defined in quite a narrow, art-school kind of way to mean 1960s ‘happenings’, Man Ray or Marcel Duchamp-style posing, and scores of ‘art performances’.

Take, for example, the African photographer who takes self-portraits of himself dressed as iconic black figures; the Japanese photographer who took a series of images of himself in the bath; another Japanese photographer who took a series of a young man almost naked who, in each successive photo, has an additional playing card stuck to his body until he is completely covered in cards; the women photographers who take shots of themselves naked with various props.

Performance in that sense. Performing for the camera.

Jimmy De Sana, Marker Cones (1982) © Courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, London and The Estate of Jimmy De Sana

Jimmy De Sana, Marker Cones (1982) © Courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, London and The Estate of Jimmy De Sana

Series And a bit more reflection made me realise the sheer number of images follows naturally from the way the photos come in series and sets. The photos recording performances and ‘happenings’ – a bunch of young people strip naked and are painted with psychedelic swirls and circles in some 1960s happening; Japanese art students carry placards across a road junction in Tokyo then trample them to the ground; some other Japanese students drop objects with small parachutes from a tall building – naturally require quite a few shots to convey the full action events, so it is not unusual to come across series of 20 or more photos, whole walls covered with images recording one ‘event’.

Naked women

1. There were quite a few images of naked women. Less than half the total, probably less than a quarter of the images, but still a steady stream of boobs and loins and shapely female bodies, which prompted a few thoughts.

2. Without exception these were young white women, ablebodied, in their 20s and 30s. There are shots of  two or three happenings taken by male photographers – notably the team of Harry Shunk and János Kender who became well-known for photographing avant-garde and counter-cultural performances. But most of these images of naked women are self-portraits of the photographer by herself.

3. The wall labels go to some lengths to explain that these naked ladies set out to ‘subvert’ conventions, raise issues of gender identity, and the other half dozen or so phrases used on these occasions. But what you actually saw was a lot of images of scantily-clad young women. In the first three rooms I counted 43 photos of naked women. Later highlights included:

Hannah Wilke made a number of 1970s ‘performative works’ of herself in which ‘she used her own body to challenge ideas of spectatorship and desire’. In the series, Super-T-Art (1974), we see 20 b&w images of her wearing a toga which, oops, slips off her shoulders and exposes first her breasts, then all of her. With the best will in the world I don’t see how this is challenging anything: it looks to me like it is wholeheartedly taking part in the opposite of challenge, in the marketing and distribution of images of naked women and, worse, of images of a perfect, very American, healthy young female form, precisely the kind of image which helps to create the general social environment in which most women feel some measure of guilt and anxiety at failing to live up to this kind of idealised image of femininity and sexuality.

Adrian Piper took 14 self portraits of herself – Food For The Spirit – some in a dress, some in panties, some butt naked – the twist is they are very underexposed so at first sight appeared to be completely black. Only on by peering quite close to the print could you start to make out the image of the artist – and suddenly realise you are looking at a skinny young naked woman.

In 1999 and 2000 artist Jemima Stehli asked male art critics to sit in her studio while she stripped naked in front of them. The critics had control of a camera which was placed behind her as she stripped, an angle which catches the critics full face, squirming with embarrassment or grinning with enjoyment and captures her slowly declothed body from the rear. Strip consists of 56 big colour images of Stehli taking off her jeans and bra and panties until she is standing splendidly naked, apart from black high heels which make her look exactly a Bond girl from a movie poster. Apparently this work ‘explores themes of voyeurism, spectacle and control.’ I admire the phrasing and the art school rhetoric of this explanation, but Stehli is also a stunningly shapely woman, and she chose to strip off, photograph herself and hang scores of images of herself naked on gallery walls. As my son pointed out, so she’s making a career out of selling naked photos of herself? Er, yes. In case you were disappointed at the way all these shots are of her rear, Stehli has thoughtfully published numerous photos of herself naked from the front as well.

Carolee Schneemann: Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions (1963). The artist naked adorned with various props and paints found in the studio. The density and clutteredness and the abandonment of the poses (and the density of her pubic hair, something not seen so much these days) dates the images to an era when graphic full-frontal nudity still had the power to shock.

4. There were some naked young men in the 1960s ‘happenings’ photos, and some scattered elsewhere throughout (particularly young Japanese men). But it was a room dedicated to the way art superstars of the 70s and 80s used photos to dominate press and PR, in the form of posters and magazine covers featuring Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Joseph Beuys, that brought home to me the contrast between the naked women and the clothed men.

Contrary to all the claims in the wall labels that women artists taking their clothes off somehow ‘subverts’ convention, it in fact screamingly asserts and confirms society’s worst sexist assumption, which is that women, asked to be creative, to do or say something, can only start with their bodies, use their bodies, think of their bodies first. Whereas men asked to do something creative have ideas, insights, make things external to them, come up with gags or performances or plays or art works – and remain fully clothed throughout.

Warhol, Koons, Beuys, photographers Martin Parr and Lee Friedlander – all fully dressed, having creative, insightful, novel ideas.

Amalia Ulman, Jemima Strehli, Hannah Wilke – when prompted to do art – take their clothes off, resulting in the same tired old images of lovely, young naked women. Just a few score more naked women to add to the tens of millions of naked women who overflow the internet, newspapers, magazines, adverts, TV, film, everywhere.

I’m not saying this is true of these women artists actual practices and achievements. I am saying this is the unfortunate impression which this selection and this hang and this exhibition gave this viewer on this particular visit.

Fully clothed women

It was a relief to see the work of women photographers who had not got their kit off, such as the wonderful sequence Seven Twists by Dora Maurer, one of the standout pieces of the Adventures of the Black Square show at the Whitehall Art Gallery.

There was just one photo of/by Sarah Lucas, Fighting fire with fire, enough to convey her wonderful ‘fuck you’ attitude. Could have happily seen some more.

Cindy Sherman was represented by a number of photos she took of herself mocked up as stereotypical characters from fictitious movies; and a different series of her with no make-up shrouded in a dressing gown which was constantly threatening to fall off her naked body. Looking her up online I got a sense of Sherman as much more interesting than the selection here made out.

Some of the naked exhibits

Twenty two b&w photos of Yves Klein’s 1960 art event, Anthropometries of the Blue Period, in which several gorgeous women stripped naked in front of a po-faced audience wearing formal evening dress, and then painted their naked bodies and pressed themselves against canvases to create art.

Man Ray – Erotique Voilee. There were a few other tiny Man Rays later, one of his portrait of Marcel Duchamp dressing up as a woman. You’d have thought Man Ray’s entire oeuvre consisted of stunning ‘performances’ and so justified hundreds of entries here, but no – two was your lot 😦

The Anatomic Explosion i.e. 20 or so b&w photos of naked young men and women on Brooklyn Bridge in the heady 1960s, along with another sequence of young people getting naked at a party in a studio, both shot by the cool, avant-garde team of Harry Shunk and János Kender.

Jimmy de Sana’s sequence of stylised art photos of male and female nudes in odd poses from the 1980s.

A whole room was devoted to Francesca Woodman who started taking photos as a child and took reams of photos of herself as a young woman, clothed, half clothed or bare naked, often posing in derelict, empty rooms. To her, personally, this may have been a brave voyage of self-exploration – and I am sensitive to the eerie, disconnected atmosphere in many of the photos, which are genuinely haunting.

But to the viewer who has already seen several hundred bare boobs by this stage, Woodman risks, in a photo like Untitled, just falling into line with all the other nubile young women in our culture who seem so keen to get their kit off. Half of them do it for the Sun and ‘glamour’ mags and are looked down on; the other half do it for ‘performance’ and ‘art’ and have respectful feminist monographs written about them. The vibe I got off these photos of unhealthy self-obsession was joltingly confirmed when I read that she committed suicide aged 22. The more I looked at her photos, the more powerful I found them…

Orphée by Tokyo Rumando, a sequence of black and white photos of the artist standing in front of a mirror which ‘explore Anxiety and fear, dark desire and pleasure, decadence and madness, and then death and the void’ — but for which it’s important that she is often topless.

Whatever else they are meant to be ‘questioning’, ‘subverting’ and ‘interrogating’, absolutely none of these photos question the fundamental axiom that the best kind of body is young, white and female, a whole, taut, streamlined, slender female body with brown-tipped nipples and prominent pubic hair. The old, the fat and ugly, the disabled, the disfigured, women with mastectomies or C section scars or the countless other marks of time and disease – are 100% absent from this large selection.

The most contemporary work seemed to be Amalia Ulman‘s series including Excellencies and Perfections (below). Once more a woman photographer is ‘exploring’ something or other by taking countless photographs of herself and her body in all manner of costumes and poses, often very scantily clad. Probably this does reflect contemporary selfie culture which, more than ever before in human history, foregrounds and values and sells perfect young, smoothly unlined women’s bodies in unprecedented numbers – except the ones doing the posing, packaging, commodifying and distribution are no longer the male publishers of porn mags, but the young women themselves. Maybe that’s progress…

Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014),(#itsjustdifferent) 2015. Courtesy the Artist & Arcadia Missa

Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 8th July 2014),(#itsjustdifferent) 2015. Courtesy the Artist & Arcadia Missa

Exhibits with their clothes on

Eikoh Hosoe‘s b&w pictures of rehearsals for plays or films stood out because of their exotic setting and the foreign dress and faces of the performers. Also featured is his Kamataichi, a collaboration with the choreographer and founder of the Butoh movement Tatsumi Hijikata, from 1969. There are extraordinary shots of a male performer running wild in the rice fields, leaping in front of traditional houses, grimacing and leering into the camera. Incomprehensible but tremendously dynamic. What is the meaning of the man in make-up with a parasol on a wooden bridge?

Nadar, the most famous 19th century French photographer, active in the 1850s and 1860s. Stage performers came and posed in his studio, in an era when performance meant putting interesting costumes on instead of taking all your clothes off. The 20 or so photos here include shots of Charles Deburau acting out poses as the character ‘Pierrot’ and Sarah Bernhardt as Lady Macbeth.

A sequence of photos showing how Yves Klein’s over-familiar leap into the void photo was prepared, staged and manufactured.

Many of the performance sequences were shot by the team of Harry Shunk and János Kender, two of the most important photographers to have worked with performance artists. Their photos of various ‘happenings’ in the New York of the 1960s show how sweetly and naively young people from that time thought that taking all their clothes off said something or changed anything.

Chinese art superstar Ai Weiwei (beneficiary of a recent massive retrospective at the Royal Academy) is represented by the iconic trio of photos of him dropping and smashing a supposedly valuable Chinese vase. The prints are vast, over 6 foot tall, maybe 5 wide, as merits Ai’s outsize reputation. The only other images as large were those of Warhol and Koons and Beuys in the PR and marketing room, making you realise that Ai is the contemporary equivalent of those masters of press and marketing.

I liked Erwin Wurm‘s photos of instant sculptures, people imaginatively using household props to create unlikely poses e.g. lady on oranges. Tate invited Wurm to give two events explaining and showing visitors how to create one-minute sculptures.

Two of Wurm’s pics here were from a separate sequence using the supermodel Claudia Schiffer. They’re fun and creative and the best thing about them is the way she keeps her clothes on, so that she comes over as a person and not as a body. I like the orange motif. Who suspected that oranges could open up a whole new world of performance art?

Samuel Fosso’s African Spirits 2008, in which the artist photographs himself in the guise of iconic figures like Malcolm X and Miles Davis. The hang affects your perception of the images. These prints were a) very big, 203 foot tall b) hung as a regular grid (as opposed to a row of pics or an irregular patterning, as some others are). The effect was to give them a pleasing sense of order and symmetry before you even considered the subject matter.

British photographer Martin Parr (who also has an exhibition of photos, Unseen City, at the Guildhall Art Gallery) was represented by Autoportraits, a series of images where he’s superimposed his very English, slightly gormless-looking face onto a variety of the trite, kitsch backdrops found in photographers studios around the world. Charmingly eccentric. Note the way comedy or surrealness comes over better in colour.

In a break from the overwhelming majority of black and white photos, there was a series of sepia prints by Boris Mikhailov, Crimean Snobbism. The wall label was a bit difficult to follow, but I think these are simply photos of himself, wife and friends on holiday in the Crimea, during which they amused themselves by ‘posing’ as people on holiday, playing up to stereotypes of tourists and holidaymakers, performing for the camera. If anyone who plays up for the camera in their holiday snaps is an artist then the world is over-run with them.

I liked Keith Arnatt’s series of gardeners in their gardens  but I wondered what they had to do with the theme of ‘performance’. If you call gardening a ‘performance’ then almost any kind of activity can turn out to be a performance and the word ceases to have much meaning.

A wall of unsmiling self portraits by veteran American photographer Lee Friedlander. He captures himself in different poses, as anybody who takes a selfie does. Whether these qualify as ‘performances’ I couldn’t quite decide. Certainly he has an ‘eye’ for an arresting composition…

Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase is represented by a series of images of his wife in various clothes on various days seen from the window of their apartment – From Window (1974). I’d like to add something clever and intellectual but it did seem to just be a series of photos of his wife going off to work wearing a different outfit each day.

Masahisa Fukase, From Window (1974) © Masahisa Fukase Archives. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

Masahisa Fukase, From Window (1974) © Masahisa Fukase Archives. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery.

He is also has a separate series of b&w pics of himself in a bath – Bukubuku (Bubbling) from 1991.  Very tight close-ups of his face, above the water, under the water blowing bubbles, half-submerged, and so on. I particularly like the one of him wearing a dapper hat, shades and smoking a fag in the bath. With art school pompousness his Wikipedia article describes these as ‘Fukase’s last great work, a whimsical if somewhat morbid game of solitaire that charts new territory for the photographic self-portrait.’

Niki de Saint Phalle appeared in the Global Pop Art exhibition in these very rooms a few months ago, represented by her shooting art works where she filled sacks with poster paints, tied them to canvases and covered the lot in whitewash. She then invited friends and fellow artists round to the shooting gallery at the rear of her studios, where they were given guns and told to shoot the canvases. The Pop Art show included some of the resulting whitewashed canvases covered with spurts of colour paint. Here we have a sequence of b&w photos of her making the canvases, shooting the guns, organising her pals into firing squads and so on. Everyone is wearing clothes. Odd, really, that these works were all about chaotic spurts of colour and yet all the records of it are dully monochrome.

Favourites

  • Charles Ray’s Plank Pieces I and II. Simple, clean, elegant and powerful.
  • Harry Shunk and János Kender’s sequence of 27 photos of Merce Cunningham’s dance troupe rehearsing and performing. Here the blurred or somehow treated outlines of the human form assume a science fiction otherness. Can’t find any of them on the internet.
  • David Wojnarowicz’s sequence Arthur Rimbaud in New York. Wojnarowicz printed out the French poet’s face from the iconic Étienne Carjat 1871 portrait of him, cut it out and attached elastic to make it a strap-on mask, and got various native New Yorkers to wear it in their everyday settings. Simple, funny, stylish.

Conclusions

The press release claims the exhibition ‘shows not only that photography has always been performative, but that much performance art is inherently photographic.’ OK.

It was possible to look at all the photos, read all the wall labels, read the programme and press release and assimilate all the information, insights, opinions and interpretations and still emerge with your understanding of the basic axioms of photography completely unchanged: Naked or scantily clad young women are artistic. Black and white is artistic. (Colour pics are less forgiving, more tacky, better suited to irony.) Men doing wacky things is artistic (jumping out windows, dropping vases, playing bubbles in the bath). The rule seems to be: Men do, women strip.

Oh, and the 1960s and 70s overflowed with avant-garde art most of which is now, frankly, embarrassing.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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