Abstract Expressionism edited by David Anfam (2016)

This is the catalogue or book of the 2016 Royal Academy exhibition of Abstract Expressionism – ‘arguably the most significant movement of the twentieth century’ (Christopher Le Brun) – the first large retrospective in this country since 1959.

It’s a massive hardback book, 320 pages long, and containing:

  • four long essays – by exhibition curator David Anfam, Susan Davidson, Jeremy Lewison, Carter Ratcliff
  • a twenty-page chronology of the movement
  • followed by 200 pages of illustrations of paintings and sculptures, then a further section of watercolours and sketches, and then key photographs from the era

Several thoughts arise from a slow careful perusal of this enormous tome.

Earlier than realised

Although I associate it with the 1950s, and the style did indeed dominate that decade, the creation, labelling, and publicising of Abstract Expressionism all happened in the 1940s. It was as early as 1946 that the art critic Robert Coates, writing in The New Yorker, first used the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’, perceptively describing how the new school took the anti-figurative aesthetic of modernist French and Dutch artists but combined it with the emotional intensity of the German Expressionists.

It was even earlier, in 1943, that Jackson Pollock was talent spotted by the rich heiress Peggy Guggenheim, signed up to her gallery and given his first one-man exhibition, invited to paint a mural in the entrance to her New York apartment (Mural – ‘the first outstanding large-scale painterly abstraction ever created in America’, p.33). This was seen by umpteen influential visitors including the critic Clement Greenberg who promptly wrote an article declaring Pollock ‘the greatest painter this country had produced.’ To step back a bit, this was all happening in the same year as the Battle of Stalingrad i.e. the first decisive defeat of Nazi Germany, and the Allied invasion of Italy. The Second World War hadn’t even finished yet. Nobody knew about the Holocaust.

It was still only in the 1940s that Abstract Expressionism was reaching a mass audience – August 8, 1949 to be precise – when Pollock was given a four-page spread in Life magazine that asked, ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’ and which projected him to nationwide superstar-artist fame. The next year he dropped his trademark ‘drip’ technique, which in fact only lasted the short period from 1947 to 1950, in order to explore new styles. Neither the critics nor buyers were interested. They wanted more drips. ‘Play us the old songs, Jackson.’ Given the pressures and the spotlight, it’s surprising that he soldiered on till 1956 before dying in a drunken car crash which might have been suicide.

This all lends support to the revisionist view of Stephen Polcari, that the Abstract Expressionists were not responding to the crises of the Cold War – though that is how they were marketed and perceived at the time – but in fact had their roots in the social, economic, and political crises of the 1930s, when they were all impressionable young men. If they shared a tragic sense it was shaped by the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, the war in Spain and then the descent into darkness of the entire continent whence ‘civilisation’ supposedly originated.

It was well before the Cold War and the A-Bomb, way back in 1943 that Rothko and Gottlieb wrote a letter published in the New York Times which expressed the kind of doom-laden intensity which all the AEs seem to have shared, asserting that:

the subject matter is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. (quoted p.21)

Is Abstract Expressionism a good label?

As usual with many art ‘movements’, many of the key players weren’t particularly happy with the label imposed on them – Abstract Expressionism – and others went the rounds, like ‘the New York school’ or ‘Tenth Street painters’. But AE stuck. They never produced a manifesto or exhibited together, and there’s no one photo with the main players together. But people – curators, collectors, galleries, journalists, and us – the poor uninformed public – we all need labels to hang on to, especially in the middle of the century when art movements came and went with such dizzying rapidity.

And the artists certainly all knew each other, lived in the same area of Downtown Manhattan, hung around in the same taverns and bars, and were subject to the same washes of influence as America experienced the Depression, the great influx of refugee artists from the Nazis, reacted (in different ways) against the naive nationalist art of the 1930s, against Regionalism and Social realism, but engaged in highly individual struggles to find a new idiom, new ways of seeing and doing art.

The paintings

This brings us to the actual art and the obvious conclusion that the mature styles of the four or five main players were very different and extremely distinctive. There were a lot of second string artists floating around, who produced good work or influenced the Big Boys in one way or another – and the generous selection in the RA exhibition and this book goes out of its way to include works by Adolph Gottlieb, Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Joan Mitchell, Conrad Marca-Relli, Jack Tworkov, Milton Resnick, some 20 artists in all.

But leafing through the beautiful reproductions, again and again the works of five key names stood out for me, emerging as titans above the crowd. (In essay four, the gallery owner Betty Parsons who played a key role in promoting AE, is quoted describing Pollock, Rothko, Still and Newman as ‘the Four Horsemen’.)

A word about aesthetics

It’s challenging and entertaining to try and put into words what it is that makes some paintings canonical and some redundant or not-quite-there. The latter phrase gives a clue to my approach. I find that, for most art or museum objects I see, some give the sense of being finished and completely themselves. Thus among my favourite works of art anywhere are the Benin bronzes at the British Museum. They seem to me to have set out to do something and to do it perfectly and completely. They are completely themselves, impossible to alter or improve. Similarly, the famous helmet from Sutton Hoo completely (ominously, threateningly) says what it sets out to, bespeaks an entire world and civilisation.

So if I have any aesthetic theory it is not the application of any external guidelines of beauty, requiring a work of art to conform to this, that or the other rule. It is something to do with a work coming entirely into its own, its own space and design. Having suggested a certain form or subject or shape, then delivering on that idea, completely. Fulfilling its premises.

Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956)

Pollock’s best drip paintings dominate the era and all his contemporaries as clearly as Andy Warhol dominated Pop Art. Possibly others were better artists, showed more consistent artistic development and certainly others have their fans and devotees – but nobody can deny Pollock and Warhol’s works are immediately recognisable not just as art, but as icons of a particular period and place.

And, in my opinion, they fulfil my theory of completeneness – that an artist has a moment when they crystallise a signature style by fully developing the tendencies implicit in their approach (as discerned in their earlier developing works).

Thus it is very obvious that there is a long run-up of pre-drip Pollock (Male and Female 1942, Eyes in the heat 1946) as he groped his way in the dark from works whose size and shape was influence by his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton the mural-maker, but whose content is often dominated by Guernica-period Picasso — and there is a hangover of post-drip Pollock (when he experimented for a while with just black – Number 7, 1952). Both of them are interesting, but so-so.

But then there is drip PollockBlue Poles (1952) is a masterpiece, a completely immersive experience, as completely itself as the huge lily ponds of Monet. Immersive because it is vast and its size is an important factor. After splatting the surface with a preliminary network of black, white, yellow and red loops, Pollock used the edge of a plank dunked in blue paint to create the eight poles. Like Matisse’s dancing cutouts, this is an example of perfect taste, perfectly ‘getting’ the possibility of a visual rhythm. It isn’t classical or symmetrical or figurative of anything – it is a pure design which, for some reason to do with perceptual psychology, just works. Close up you can appreciate the extraordinary lacework of other colours dripped across the canvas, trademark yellow, red and whites, to create a dense tapestry weave of texture and colour. It is entirely itself. It is a summation of everything implicit in the drip approach to painting. And it is this sense of completing all the potential of the method which gives it its thrilling excitement, which makes it a masterpiece, and also a ‘classic’ of this style.

Along with works like Summertime (1948) and Number 4 (1949) these seem complete expressions of what they’re meant to be, of a certain Gestalt. Once you’ve thought of dripping raw paint across the canvas, then it turns out that certain levels of complete coverage and a certain level of complexity of the interlinking lines is somehow optimum, others less so. Too much and it is just mess; too little and it looks empty. At his peak Pollock produced a string of works which experiment with colours, shape of canvas and so on, but which all display an innate feel for just how to do this kind of painting.

Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)

Rothko, also, is up there in the recognisability stakes in the sense that his final, achieved style is instantly distinctive. He too struggled to find his way from a sort of blocky blurry realism (Interior, 1936) on a journey via a completely different look in a work like Gethsemane (1944), which looks like washed-out surrealism, before coming to the brink of his mature style with experiments in big blotches of soft-edged colour (No.18 1948, Violet, Black, orange, Yellow on White and Red, 1949).

But then – bang! – he hits it, he finds his voice, he claims his brand, he crystallises his vision, he stumbles upon the formula of big rectangular blocks of shimmering colours which will last the rest of his life, what Anfam calls his ‘chromatic mirages’ (p.21).

Rothko left the murals he’d prepared for the restaurant in the new Seagram building to London’s Tate Gallery. There’s a darkened room containing all of them in Tate Modern and you can sit staring into them for hours. Critics saw in them the same kind of existentialist anxiety (all those massive blocks terrifying threatening the viewer, all the anxiety of those unknown fraying edges) that they saw in Pollock — but these days they are more like aids to calm reflection and meditation, and the audioguide plays very quiet meditative music by American experimental composer Morton Feldman. From Cold War angst to post-modern pleasure.

But however you read them, there’s no denying that Rothko stumbled upon (worked his way through to) an entirely new way of conceiving of coloured paint on canvas, a discovery and a formula – and then spent twenty years working through hundreds of variations, exploring and stumbling across further discoveries. Big, bright, abstract, moody. And a world away from Pollock’s splats. the casual viewer could be forgiven for asking how the two could ever be bracketed together, where the one is very much about the dynamic power of vibrantly interlacing lines and the other is very much about the calming meditative effect of enormous blocks of shimmering colour.

Clyfford Still (1904 – 1980)

The much-told story about Still is that he was prickly and difficult, went his own way, argued with all the other AEs, in the early 1950s terminated his contract with a commercial gallery and ended up neither exhibiting nor selling any of his pieces, but working away steadily in provincial obscurity in Maryland. He died in possession of 95% of everything he’d ever painted and made a will leaving his life’s work to whichever organisation could create a museum dedicated to housing and showing it. After numerous negotiations this turned out to be the City of Denver and it was only in 2011 that there finally opened a museum dedicated to Still, and that this vast reservoir of work was made available to critics and the public. In the short time since then his reputation has undergone a major revaluation and the room devoted to his work at the Royal Academy exhibition was, arguably, even more impactful then the displays of Pollock and Rothko. Still was a revelation.

Like the others, Still took a long journey, and his early work is represented by another semi-figurative work from the 30s, PH-726 (1936). But by 1944 he has stumbled upon his formula – sharp rips or tears against solid fields of colour, PH-235 (1944), all done in a really thick impasto or thick layer of paint which adds to the sense of presence and impact.

What are they? Wikipedia says his mature works ‘recall natural forms and natural phenomena at their most intense and mysterious; ancient stalagmites, caverns, foliage, seen both in darkness and in light lend poetic richness and depth to his work.’ Because the commentary goes heavy on his upbringing in the mid-West and of the associations of Denver, Colorado, I saw in several of them the pattern of cattle hides, the tans and blacks and beiges which you see in some Indian art, teepees, shields. Just a fancy.

Barnett Newman (1905 – 1970)

Newman had his first one-man show in 1948, the year he broke through to his mature style with the Onement series. Again, his was a long journey out of 1930s figurativism, until he made a discovery / stumbled across an idea / achieved a mature style (delete as applicable), creating what Anfam calls his ‘transcendent spatial continuums’ (p.21). Once he’d found it, repeated it through countless iterations.

A classic Barnett Newman has a vertical line – or ‘zip’ as he himself called them – dividing a field of colour – initially drab colour but becoming brighter and brighter as the 1950s progressed. The zip defines the picture plane, separates the composition yet binds it together, sunders it yet gives it a weird tremulous unity.

Why does it work? I’d give good money to read an analysis by a psychologist or expert in the psychology of perception, of shapes and colours, who could explain the effect they have on the mind of the viewer.

According to this book, among the big-name AEs, Newman was rather overlooked in favour of the brasher bolder works of his peers. Also, Pollock and Still, to name two, used highly expressive brushwork and thick or spattered layers of paint. Standing close you can see the thick clots of oil on the surface. Newman’s paintwork is flat and restrained. In fact his colourfulness and geometric designs link him more to the school of ‘post-painterly abstraction’ which emerged in the 1960s and are almost connected to the cool understatement of minimalism.

Franz Kline (1910 – 1962)

Kline’s breakthrough moment is much mythologised. Working as a commercial illustrator in New York while struggling to work his way towards some kind of abstract language, Kline was visited by Willem de Kooning who suggested he use a projector to blow up & project his complicated paintings onto the wall and then select small details to reproduce as full scale canvases. Taking this insight, Kline quickly worked out a style of broad black brushstrokes on white, which continually seem to gesture towards something yet are abstract. Are they fragments of larger designs and shapes? Or references to Japanese calligraphy (which Kline always denied)? Or dramatic actions in themselves?

Like all the other AEs, Kline’s work is big, really really BIG. Whatever the differences in style and approach, the AEs had this one thing in common – their work is huge and immersive. (A sign at Barnett Newman’s second exhibition at the Betty Parson’s Gallery in May 1951 actually requested visitors to stand close up to the picture; visitors had been requested to do the same at the Pollock exhibition which immediately preceded it – p.93.)

Kline is further evidence for my theory that artists often reach a recognisable defining style and produce a number of works which somehow express the quintessence of their voice or vision, only after a journey upwards and, alas, sometimes a later decline or wandering away… Having perfected the black and white calligraphy style – so instantly recognisable – by the time he was just 40, after a while at the top of his game, Kline had nowhere to go except back into colour, and these later colour works, although fine in their own way, represent a really noticeable falling away of the energy which the stark black-and-white contrasts produced. For some reason this style looks terribly dated, very late 50s early 60s, whereas the black and white calligraphic works look timeless to me.

Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997)

De Kooning is the one big AE I couldn’t get on with at all, and the more I saw the more I disliked his stuff. Partly because I think he never did develop a defined style. To me, all of his stuff looks like messy sketches on the way towards something better, they all look like the dispensable journey works on the way to… nowhere. The same horrible messy scrawl effect is his one signature effect.

All the other AEs strike me as having a purpose, a direction. Pollock’s works are far more artful than they appear, Rothko’s are careful experiments, Newman achieved a kind of classic restraint and Still’s jagged compositions are unerringly ‘right’, conveying something much bigger than the images seem to warrant.

Only de Kooning’s works, out of the whole show and this long book, consistently look to me like a slapdash mess, a dog’s dinner, victims of what Anfam calls his ‘lacerating sweeps’ (p.21). And the series of depictions of women  – his ‘wrenching engagements with the female sex’ (Anfam, p.22) – which are often singled out by the critics for praise, to me could hardly be uglier and more repellent if they tried.

Adolph Gottlieb (1903 – 1974)

Apparently Gottlieb is perceived as a second string AE, his career weaving through a series of styles, including surrealism in the 1930s, a spell in the Arizona desert simplifying images to a primal essence, and the development of ‘pictographs’ representing psychologically charged shapes and patterns. It was as late as 1956 that he developed the ‘burst’ style, dividing the canvas into two halves, with a round sun-like object above and a busy earth-like mass below – creating a dialectic between calm and busy, with the use of bright colours to interfere and resonate.

Hundreds of bursts resulted and I can see why critics looking for world-shattering angst and grand existentialist statements might deprecate them, but I like him for devising a new ‘look’ and then producing fascinating variations on it.

Neglected women

One of the most pressing concerns of our times, in the arts and elsewhere, is restoring the reputations, the overlooked achievements and untold stories, of neglected woman. Four women artists worked in and around Abstract Expressionism and are included here:

Janet Sobel (1894 – 1968) began painting at the mature age of 43 when her son left home leaving behind his copious art materials. She progressed from figurative paintings featuring dreamy rather Chagall-like faces enmeshed in zoomorphic patterns, through to pure abstraction and eventually the technique of dripping paint. Some scholars claim it was Sobel who arrived at the drip technique before Jackson. That’s one for the scholars. All her works have a lightness. Maybe it was the light decorative effect as opposed to the Big Boys’ existentialist histrionics more than the fact she was a woman which wrote her out of the story for so long.

Lee Krasner (1908 – 1984) Krasner evolved through a series of styles. During the heyday of the AEs she tended to be overlooked by virtue of the fact that she was married to the top dog, Jackson Pollock. But the works included here show she had a related but distinct vision of her own.

Just living with Jackson sounds like a demanding job, but creating alongside him, in a related but clearly distinctive style, is little less than heroic. The next two are to one side for the simple reason that they were of a younger generation

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) You can see the importance of the gesture but, a little like de Kooning, I don’t see it going anywhere.

They’re big, one of the simplest criteria for being an abstract expressionist. But arriving at Salut Tom at the end of the exhibition felt like we’d moved a long way from late-40s existentialism into a brighter more decorative world. Same style, different world.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) She painted onto unprimed canvas so that the paint soaked into it, thus creating a very flat surface.

Peggy and Betty

The fourth essay in the book is in many ways the most interesting, telling the complementary stories of two hugely important gallery owners who promoted the work of the Abstract Expressionists from the first – the Jewish millionairess Peggy Guggenheim and the scion of a wealthy WASP family, Betty Parsons. Peggy lived in Paris between the wars, becoming fantastically well-connected among the city’s avant-garde, arranging exhibitions and starting her own staggering collection, before fleeing ahead of the Nazi invasion in 1940, back to New York, where in 1942 she set up The Art of This Century Gallery.

Like Peggy, only without the millions, Betty went to live in Paris, where she herself pursued a career as an artist, taking lessons, before losing her money in the Wall Street Crash and being forced back to the States, to teach, and then to work in commercial galleries. She learned the trade, becoming popular among artists for her good taste and business sense (i.e. selling their pictures and making them money). In 1945 she set up the Betty Parsons Gallery which ran till her death in 1982. When Guggenheim returned to Paris after the war, Parsons took on many of ‘her’ artists, and the article turns into an impressive roster of the exhibitions she put on for one after another of all the key artists of the time, working hard to promote them and get them sales.

The essay is a fascinating insight not only into the achievements of these two vital women, but into the art world in general. It’s shocking to learn how little the artists sold at these shows – they’d display a dozen or 16 new works, for between $250 and $1,400 – and quite frequently none would sell at all. Or only small watercolours would sell to what turn out to be friends of the artist or the gallery owner herself. Works which now fetch tens of millions of dollars at auction.

In a fascinating detail, the book mentions several times that one problem was the paintings’ sheer scale: it was one thing to create a fourteen foot square canvas in the space of a half derelict loft-cum-studio, quite another thing to expect even quite rich people in New York to find enough wall space to hang it, back in the cluttered 1940s and 1950s. It was only well into the 1960s and more so in the 1970s that ideas of interior design changed significantly, that clutter was thrown out and rooms knocked together to create large airy spaces, often painted white, in which the vast canvases of the Abstract Expressionists suddenly made sense.

But by this point the AEs were up against the equally large creations of Post-painterly Abstraction, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and so on and New York was established as the centre of a fast-moving, big money art culture.


Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

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

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