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

Adventures of the Black Square @ Whitechapel Art Gallery

I wrote about the big retrospective of Malevich at Tate Modern in August last year. This is rather like the sequel: Malevich II – The Square Goes Global.

Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) was a Russian avant-garde artist, architect, designer and writer. From early naturalistic paintings of peasants, farm scenes etc he evolved quickly towards the legendary exhibition – titled The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10 – in 1915 which exhibited 39 paintings of black squares, rectangles and other geometric shapes on a pale cream background.

Up in the corner of the room, where the Russian icon was traditionally situated, was placed the famous black square painting. Famous because it declared the end of four or five centuries of Western art struggling to create and exploit the idea of depth and perspective in an oil painting. Malevich tore up the entire notion that a painting is a realistic window onto the world. Painting is shapes on a flat plane. Shapes, colours, whatever you want. They can do anything. There is infinite scope. Painting set free. He called his version of the new, geometric art, Suprematism.

(The work below isn’t the black square, but one of Malevich’s other black and white geometric works which featured in the famous show.)

Kazimir Malevich Black and White. Suprematist Composition 1915 Oil on canvas 80 x 80 cm Moderna Museet, Stockholm Donation 2004 from Bengt and Jelena Jangfeldt

Kazimir Malevich – Black and White. Suprematist Composition (1915)
Moderna Museet, Stockholm
Oil on canvas
Donation 2004 from Bengt and Jelena Jangfeldt

This exhibition at the lovely, airy Whitechapel Gallery, right next to Aldgate East tube, takes Malevich’s iconic square and tracks its influence through the hundred years since its début, right up to the present day. 1915-2015. The catalogue says the show is divided into four themes:

  • ‘Utopia’ – the black square as founder of new aesthetic and political horizons
  • ‘Architectonics’ – floating geometries that suggest new social spaces as imagined by Lyubov Popova or Piet Mondrian
  • ‘Communication’ – the flood of early 20th century manifestos and avant-garde graphics
  • The ‘Everyday’ – the square around us, for example in textiles by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, in abstract motifs painted on Peruvian lorries, in random white squares photographed in cities around the world etc

In practice the show consists of one or two works each by over a hundred artists. A hundred! From the past hundred years. From all around the world (Europe, America, Brazil, China). That’s a lot of names, a lot of countries, a lot of styles, to get anywhere near grasping.

Therefore, I found it easier to manage – and I found the division of four rooms fell easily into – a simpler, binary schema: the first room shows the Early Modernism of Malevich and his generation of likeminded experimenters, in painting, sculpture, architecture, photography, ballet and music, in Europe (and Russia).

The other three rooms show geometric art from The Rest of the Twentieth Century, from around the world, in all its bewildering variety.

Part 1. Early Modernism

Malevich’s name is one among a flood of other innovators from the period just before the Great War to the mid-1930s. Other pioneers given passing mention or featured by one choice work here include El Lissitsky and the Hungarian-born Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (who took up a post at the Bauhaus when it was formed in 1919) and Wassily Kandinsky – breath-taking experimenters, as well as the often overlooked woman artist Lyubov Popova.

Lyubov Popova Painterly Architectonic 1916 Oil on board 59.4 × 39.4 cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

Lyubov Popova – Painterly Architectonic (1916)
Oil on board
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

Gustav Klutsis produced a number of designs and images which make clear the avant-garde’s association with revolutionary politics, with the wish to use new ways of seeing, building and designing to create a new society, whose socialist mechanistic schemas have been revived periodically ever since, in posters, and album covers, and other art school-inspired media.

Gustav Klutsis Design for Loudspeaker No.5 1922 Coloured ink and pencil on paper 26.6 × 14.7 cm Greek State Museum of Contemporary Art – Costakis Collection, Thessaloniki © ARS, New York and DACS, London 2014

Gustav Klutsis – Design for Loudspeaker No.5 (1922)
Coloured ink and pencil on paper
Greek State Museum of Contemporary Art – Costakis Collection, Thessaloniki
© ARS, New York and DACS, London 2014

Surprisingly, maybe, alongside the German and Russian avant-garde was a thriving Dutch one, epitomised in De Stijl, founded in 1917. Its most famous member was indubitably Piet Mondrian, who developed the grid paintings of rectangles of white, yellow, red or blue which are one of Modernism’s most immediately recognisable achievements.

Piet Mondrian Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red 1937–42 Oil paint on canvas 72.7 × 69.2 cm © DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2014 Courtesy Tate Collection: Purchased 1964

Piet Mondrian – Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red (1937–42)
Oil paint on canvas
© DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2014
Courtesy Tate Collection: Purchased 1964

Modernist magazines

The show features quite an array of magazines from Germany, Russia, France, Britain, from the Modernist moment during the Great War until well into the 1930s, including Ezra Pound’s Blast, which I reverenced at school in the 1970s; the Little Review, home to Eliot and Pound; transition, containing another instalment of the long experimental work by James Joyce which became Finnegan’s Wake – these I know from their literary associations – but also on display were a lot of others I’d never heard of from across Europe, featuring the trademark experimental typefaces, designs and layouts of the period.

Modernist photos

As well as paintings and magazines, the exhibition has a fine selection of photos pinned to the wall as well as a large video screen showing a large slideshow selection of early modernist pioneers at work. the visitor can spend a happy 6 or 7 minutes just standing watching the procession of wonderful black and white photos from the 1910s, 20s, and 30s. Most memorable from the slideshow were shots of Piet Mondrian’s apartment-cum-studio and Wassily Kandinsky supervising students at the Bauhaus painting sets for a theatrical production.

But it also made me think all over again (like the Malevich exhibition, like the Bauhaus exhibition did) that whereas a lot of these super-famous paintings turn out to be quite small and quite amateurish, and a lot of the buildings were never built or are crumbling Art Deco ruins that you’d walk past without a second look, and all the magazines seem surprisingly small, plain and dusty – the photographs of the period still pack a tremendous punch and are maybe the best medium for conveying the unbridled energy and experimentalism of the 1920s and 1930s.

I especially liked three by Werner Mantz, who I’d never heard of before. ‘During the 1920s and ’30s Mantz photographed functionalist architecture such as houses, factories, bridge constructions and motorways. The pictures are extremely detailed with .. bold cropping and angles.’ Wonderful.

Photos like this made architecture far more exciting than it could possibly be in real life, and helped to encourage the notion that architecture could create new societies, new politics, new human nature. All of which turned out to be desperately wrong.

Room 1 with its priceless examples of early Modernist geometric art

Room 1 with its priceless examples of early Modernist geometric art

Part 2. The rest of the century

So far the show is a highly enjoyable refresher course in Modernist Art. You could leave now, pick up a book on the subject in the airy bookshop, and spend the rest of the day reminding yourself of the glories of European Modernist art.

But the real point of the show is the remaining rooms, which contain a bewildering smörgåsbord of styles and approaches and media and artists, old and young, male and female, from Europe, the Middle East, South America, from schools and movements I had never heard of, from the 60 plethoric years since the end of World War Two.

Quite overwhelmed and spoilt for choice, I could only give them each a fair crack of the whip and see what made an impact, what lingered. I’ve placed the following in chronological order:

Hélio Oiticica Metaesquema 464 1958 Gouache on board 29.8 x 33cm Courtesy of Catherine & Franck Petitgas Photo: Todd White Photography © the Artist. All rights reserved

Hélio Oiticica – Metaesquema 464 (1958)
Gouache on board
Courtesy of Catherine & Franck Petitgas
Photo: Todd White Photography
© The Artist. All rights reserved

  • Swatch of Snap Fasteners by Běla Kolářová (1964) Very funny, very striking, very light and imaginative and visual.
  • Third Syntagmatic by Jeffrey Steele (1965) – his career has been spent creating geometric images according to complex mathematical formulae. BBC slideshow of Jeffrey Steele paintings
  • Poem by Saloua Raouda Choucair (1965) – Simple. Brilliant. Yes. A rounded geometry.
  • Homage to the Square by Joseph Albers – Albers appears to have done quite a few homages to the square, the one exhibited here being in shades of orange.
  • Roberto Burle Marx – never heard of him before, and why not, when he appears to have made wonderfully colourful paintings of abstract but sinuous and organic shapes, very life-full, very Brazilian.
  • 10 x 10 by Carl André (1967) – slender square slate tiles laid out in a square and which we are allowed to walk on (unless we are wearing stilletos). Minimalism. Flat. Open. There. No secrets.
  • Monument for Tatlin (1969) by Dan Flavin – a tribute to the famous ideal Russian avant-garde plan for a vast building-cum-radio transmitter for the new Soviet state, cast in Flavin’s trademark ‘minimalist’ fluorescent tubing. Though a properly trained art student might be able to argue this is subversive of something, from our perspective in 2015 it looks a lot like the real political threat of Tatlin’s building (broadcasting revolutionary propaganda to Europe) has been completely subsumed into the fluorescent department store and office lighting of consumer capitalism.
Dóra Maurer Seven Rotations 1–6 1979 Six gelatin silver prints 20 × 20 cm each Collection of Zsolt Somlói and Katalin Spengler © Dóra Maurer

Dóra Maurer – Seven Rotations 1–6 (1979)
Six gelatin silver prints
Collection of Zsolt Somlói and Katalin Spengler
© Dóra Maurer

This striking image from the eminent Hungarian artist Dóra Maurer consists of seven iterations of her holding a large photo in front of her face, and in each iteration it has become populated by versions of the photo, increasing in number and density. So striking it is used for the poster of the entire exhibition, not Malevich’s square. Another reminder of the power of black and white photography.

  • Dmitri Prigov – locked up in an insane asylum in 1986, Prigov was a post-War dissident Russian artist, represented here by images of books in the cold Russian snow, an image I can’t find on Google.
  • Shrunk by Angela de la Cruz – experiments with breaking up the wooden frames which hold canvases in a rigid rectangle, preserving and sometimes painting the resultant wreckage of the traditional mechanism of Western art.
  • Sceaux Gardens Estate by Keith Coventry (1995) One of less well-known of the 1997 Sensation artists, Coventry has made paintings out of the architect’s designs for big housing estates in London, implicitly satirising the utopian hopes of the early Modernist architects who intended to make Ideals For Living and socialist paradises for the workers with their concrete and steel tower blocks.
Gabriel Orozco Light Signs #1 (Korea) 1995 Synthetic polymer plastic sheet and light box 100 × 100 × 19.7 cm Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York © the Artist

Gabriel Orozco – Light Signs #1 (Korea) (1995)
Synthetic polymer plastic sheet and light box
Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
© the Artist

  • I Don’t Remember by Clay Ketter (2006) There appear to be numerous works with this title, so I’ve linked to a bunch of them on Google Images: I always like painting which is rough-finished, the canvas frayed round the edges like Paul Klee’s, or the readymade painting surfaces of Alfred Wallis, which featured the St Ives exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, or Jasper John’s works with stencils and bits of flag or crate or found material stuck to the surface. Ketter’s are large photographs of the walls of derelict or half-demolished buildings with panels of real world materials stuck on, to create a mix of naturalism and collage. Big. Striking.
  • Rings by Sarah Morris (2008) Now I google it I find Morris seems to have done numerous works featuring rings and titled rings. To be honest, I didn’t like the shiny Duluz gloss finish of what could, possibly, be 1960s Pop Art paintings, but there’s no denying their vigour and impact.
  • Top Secret 32 by Jenny Holzer (2010) a satire on the numerous ‘redacted’ documents which have featured in public life in recent years, from dodgy Iraq dossiers to the Edward Snowden revelations, as well as vast troves of documents involved in bank scandals
  • Leadlight by Adrian Esparza (2012) Esparza appears to have created a mode of art from disassembling woven tapestries and displaying the constituent threads into shapes, squares and so on, displayed across whole walls of galleries.
Zhao Yao Spirit Above All 1-93A 2012 Acrylic on denim 200 × 222 × 8 cm Private Collection © Zhao Yao Courtesy Pace London

Zhao Yao – Spirit Above All 1-93A (2012)
Acrylic on denim
Private Collection
© Zhao Yao
Courtesy Pace London

  • October Colouring-In Book by David Batchelor (2012) The art magazine October has been published since 1976 but never featured an illustration in colour. To take ‘revenge’, British artist David Batchelor dismantled an edition of the magazine and coloured every page with different shapes and outlines and colours, and the 20 or so separate framed pages take up one wall of a room, and are lovely and bright and inventive and unthreatening and funny.
Gallery 8, including works by Keith Coventry, Clay Ketter and Angela de la Cruz.<br /> Photo Stephen White

Gallery 8, including works by Keith Coventry, Clay Ketter and Angela de la Cruz.
Photo Stephen White

Thoughts and reflections

1. Stepping out into the gritty diesel sunlight of Commercial Road and then strolling along the backstreets to Petticoat Lane and so between the forest of tall, commercial buildings towards Liverpool Street Station, made me notice how modern architecture, in particular, is made up of squares and rectangles, whether of glass or concrete slabs, squares and rectangles everywhere. How so much of the hard-edged geometry of the vision of Modernist architecture has been completely assimilated into the buildings that surround us.

2. BUT – as in Hannah Starkey’s large photos of women alienated in the stark steel and glass atriums and waiting rooms of modern commercial buildings – how that Modernist vision of soaring glass and steel buildings, far from offering the liberation from bourgeois convention and society which the early Modernists envisioned, turned out to be the perfect style for fascism, communism or, in our time, corporate capitalism. In all its guises, a style equated with power and control. Sure it successfully replaced the fussy decorativeness of Victorian and Edwardian architecture – with a new brutalism, a physical setting for the worship of youth, power, money, control.

3. One of the last items was a video by Karthik Pandian, bang up to date as it was completed this very year. Reversal Red Square Video (2015) is a highly finished sequence of photos of cool looking dudes in darkened bars or studio spaces, across which float red rectangles of varying sizes and shapes with a minimal humming soundtrack. Simple idea, but with production values much higher than your usual art video, and calmingly mesmeric in effect.

As I sat watching these red shapes drift across the screen I thought, What about the biggest and most blindingly obvious embedding of the black square in our lives today – the screen? Most of us spend most of our day looking at the screens of desktop computers, laptops, ipads, ipods, or our smart phones (as I am as I write this, as you are as you read this).

I was surprised there didn’t appear to be a single work reflecting on the omnipresence of the rectangular screen in every aspect of modern life, and all the issues of power, control, connectivity, superficiality versus depth, speed versus reflection, and so on which we are all having to engage with whether we want to or not.

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