Basquiat: Boom for Real @ the Barbican

This exhibition is great!

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) was cool and street in a way hardly any artists are, even today. He did graffiti, made goofy postcards, he was in bands, he DJed at clubs, he liked bebop, hung out with early rappers, painted, drew and created art constantly out of the bombardment of signs, images, words and phrases which surrounded him in the grimy, vibrant New York of the early 1980s.

King of the Zulus (1984-85) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

King of the Zulus (1984-85) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Born in 1960, the son of a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat grew up in the post-punk scene in Lower Manhattan. New Wave/No Wave they called it. He attended the alternative school, City-As-School High School, where he came to attention after he developed the moniker SAMO©, along with Al Diaz and other friends, to use in graffiti all across the city. They covered buildings all over the Lower East Side with witty, snappy, poetic or satirical slogans.

SAMO originated in the stoned 17-year-olds talking about smoking the ‘same old shit’ but quickly became a cult movement, with claims and counter-claims about ‘original’ SAMOs, with other artists on the scene photographing the graffitos, exhibiting them and so on. Examples include:

SAMO© AS A CONGLOMERATE OF DORMANT GENIOUS

MY MOUTH / THEREFORE AN ERROR

Not your usual graffiti – it was puzzling, elliptical, intriguing. From really early on everything Basquiat touched had a kind of magic about it. And right from the start he was ambitious, concentrating the graffiti around the SoHo art galleries, currying attention with curators. When the Village Voice magazine finally revealed the identities of the hitherto anonymous authors, Basquiat and Diaz declared SAM dead, fellow artist Keith Haring delivered a mock eulogy at the bohemian Club 57, and Basquiat painted SAMO© IS DEAD over the old graffitos. But he continued to use the identity and the celebrity it had brought. At an arty party in 1979 Basquiat agreed to be captured on film creating a one-off SAMO© graffito on the wall of the art space where the party was happening.

A wall of photos of SAMO© graffiti by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artworks © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

A wall of photos of SAMO© graffiti by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artworks © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

With Jennifer Stein Basquiat started producing hand-made postcards – again from the detritus of the street – newspaper headlines, polaroid selfies, cigarette butts, posters, ads, random texts. Hard to imagine, but photocopying was a new technology, and their use of a rare colour photocopier showed an innovative approach to using mundane, workaday technology. On a now famous occasion Basquiat plucked up the courage to approach his hero Andy Warhol in a bar and sold him a card for one dollar.

By the turn of the decade Basquiat scraped together the resources to make paintings in an extremely rough, crude style, incorporating lots of text, phrases, slogans, street poetry, misspelled or misspelt, scrubbed out, as well as countless faces, graffiti with ambition, the street experience on canvas.

Hollywood Africans (1983) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Hollywood Africans (1983) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

The graffiti is always there as a kind of substratum in the work, but after he exhibited in the scene-defining 1981 exhibition New York/New Wave, Basquiat began to sell pieces and get access to more resources, bigger canvases to mark with acrylics, oil, crayon, pen, using not just paint but wood, scrap metal, foam rubber, all sorts.

The results are scrappy, patchy, quick and dirty, but many are also stunning, stunningly alive, colourful, vibrant, spontaneous, magnificent, in your face, spooky. Of the 1,600 works on show from artists like Warhol, Mapplethorpe, David Byrne and so on, Basquiat was singled out by nearly all the critics. Galleries approached him with contracts, magazines wanted interviews.

Untitled (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork Courtesy Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Untitled (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork Courtesy Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Numerous urban legends quickly gathered round him: a particularly entertaining one is that after his first formal introduction to Warhol at his Factory studio in October 1982, Basquiat rushed back to his gallery and knocked off a painting of himself and Warhol in just two hours and had his assistant take it round to Warhol’s studio still wet. The godfather of Pop was delighted and the two became firm friends. In fact, they went on to collaborate on some 100 works together.

Dos Cabezas (1982) by ean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Dos Cabezas (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

The exhibition includes out-takes from the episode of Warhol’s TV show in the 80s where the Bewigged One interviews Basquiat with his arm familiarly round his shoulders, joking and riffing. I see modern bloggers refer to it as a classic ‘bromance’. They collaborated, Warhol creating pop images which Basquiat defaced, rewrote, reinterpreted, remodelled. They did stylish photoshoots.

Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat July 10, 1985, by Michael Halsband

Later on in the show, there’s a viewing room where you can see one of the few extended interviews Basquiat did, an amateur effort by some art world friends. Here and in almost all the images – photos, film clips, interviews, TV stuff and some rare footage of him dancing in the studio – he comes over as full of life. You rarely see artists in any medium smile so much – he has a hugely infectious boyish smile. In the scrappy New Wave vibe of Downtown New York, glamour was as important as talent and Basquiat has charisma in buckets.

Jean-Michel Basquiat dancing at the Mudd Club (1979) © Nicholas Taylor © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Jean-Michel Basquiat dancing at the Mudd Club (1979) © Nicholas Taylor © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

But it’s not empty or baseless fame – this astonishingly young man was a fountain of creativity, graffiti turning into postcards and then overflowing into myriads of paintings, drawings, graffitied objects and readymades large and small, scrap-book montages, tell-tale silhouettes, endless self-portraits, notebooks packed full of poetry, film scripts and the bands he was in writing experimental music and lyrics, the DJing, hanging with early rap pioneers, a vortex of energy and exuberance.

Glenn (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artworks © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Glenn (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artworks © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

I returned to this particular pair of works again and again. In the century of Picasso, Klee, Kokoschka and hundreds of other semi-figurative modernists, I hadn’t seen anything quite like these, the intuitive use of completely different palettes of colours, the confidence, the lack of fear, the forcefulness of the images blew me away.

Untitled (1983) and Self Portrait (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Untitled (1983) and Self Portrait (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

This is a major exhibition, with both floors of the Barbican’s gallery packed with over 100 works – 14 rooms in all. The eight rooms on the top floor describe a chronological survey of Basquiat’s short life and prodigious output, while the six rooms on the ground floor investigate his influences, a dazzling kaleidoscope of material, from junk TV to the old textbook Gray’s Anatomy, from Picasso and Matisse (paid homage to with Basquiatesque portraits).

Untitled (Pablo Picasso), 1984 by Jean-Michel Basquiat © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Untitled (Pablo Picasso), 1984 by Jean-Michel Basquiat © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Basquiat had an intense involvement with the bebop jazz of Charlie Parker and the other lead boppers (he had a collection of some 3,000 jazz records), but this was just one source of references in a kaleidoscope of ideas and motifs which included anything from Western art which caught his fancy, a dizzying range of African and tribal art, fashion magazines, ad slogans, TV programmes, black sports stars, Hollywood movies, anything he saw, processed and incorporated into his quick vivid works.

Leonardo da Vinci's Greatest Hits (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images Artwork. Collection of Jonathan Schorr © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images Artwork. Collection of Jonathan Schorr © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

In the endless vortex of the self-referential New York art world, countless hundreds of thousands of words have been written about Basquiat, raving, promoting, analysing, knocking and dismissing him – but the best summary I’ve read was from his friend, Glenn O’Brien, music columnist in Warhol’s Interview magazine. This quote from him brings out the way Basquiat’s work lets everything in. I think this is much easier for us to understand now, in the age of solid, wall-to-wall social media saturation with images and junk text, than back in the pre-digital 1980s.

He ate up every image, every word, every bit of data that appeared in front of him and he processed it all into a bebop cubist pop art cartoon gospel that synthesised the whole overload we lived under into something that made an astonishing new sense.

‘The whole overload’. Exactly.

In 1980 some of the crowd Basquiat had met at the Mudd Club decided to make a movie about a day in the life of a Boho artist, with Basquiat playing the lead role. When shooting began in December 1980 he was 19 years old! Here’s a clip. God, isn’t he beautiful!

A room is devoted to Basquiat’s involvement with the relatively new music genre of hip-hop. In the late 70s Basquiat was introduced to early cassettes of the new music and found he had much in common with experimental musician-musicians like Rammellzee and graffiti artist Toxic. The painting above (Hollywood Africans) is a portrait of the trio on a trip to California for Basquiat’s exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles. Back in New York Basquiat and Rammellzee produced a single, ‘Beat Bop’, with J-M doing the cover art. Only 500 copies were pressed. If you own a copy with the original sleeve art, that’s your retirement sorted.

The ‘bop’ in Beat Bop indicates Basquiat’s unexpected devotion to the bebop of the 1940s, and to its tragic genius Charlie Parker (died in 1955, aged just 35, after years of intense drug abuse). Alas, Basquiat also died young, from a heroin overdose in 1988, aged just 27.

Themes

Race Some parts of the exhibition dwell on Basquiat’s colour. In 1985 he was the first black artist ever to appear on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. In the international art world a black face was a tremendous rarity. There are sections in the show about his references to black sporting heroes, to black jazz heroes, and to the new forms of expression developed by black rap music and hip hop.

This is a massive subject, especially in the fraught context of America’s ongoing problems with its black population (I mean by this the relative poverty of Afro-Americans, the disproportionate number of African-American males in prison, and the seemingly unstoppable cases of American cops beating up and shooting dead black men). I note its presence but I’m not expert enough to comment, apart from to notice the presence in many of the works of the recurrent image of a jet black silhouette, presumably a self-portrait, really powerful in its intensity, a mask, a memento, a magus.

Self-Portrait (1983) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Self-Portrait (1983) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Sex There’s less about gender and sexuality than you might expect. In fact there’s a striking absence of sexual imagery or anxiety in his paintings. I wasn’t absolutely clear whether he was gay or straight, until I read references to girlfriends in online articles. Given his punk attitude it’s surprising there isn’t more stuff, even about ‘love’, let alone the vast world of sexual imagery.

Signs Much more evident are the unstoppable flood of signs and symbols. For once a ‘semiotic’ interpretation of an artist would be justified, because Basquiat himself was quite clearly fascinated and obsessed with the strange power of signs and symbols, and the literally infinite combinations which can be made of them. In the rooms on his source materials there’s his copy of Henry Dreyfuss’s book Symbol Sourcebook.

His works are plastered with words and phrases which don’t necessarily mean anything or mean as much as they appear to, starting with SAMO’s deliberately opaque messages. For example, quite a lot of ink has been spilt trying to tease the meaning out of this phrase:

JIMMY BEST ON HIS BACK TO THE SUCKERPUNCH OF HIS CHILDHOOD FILES

which appears in graffitos and in a number of paintings and drawings. He wrote literally thousands of phrases and fragments of phrases across his works. Piecing together the puzzles, themes, meanings or avoidances of meanings strewn across this vast terrain will keep Basquiat scholars in conference invitations for the rest of their lives.

Identity Identity is one of those themes curators and art critics love to invoke but, again, it is for once justified by Basquiat’s work. From SAMO onwards he played with identities and names for himself and his work. For example, the exhibition devotes some space to his mysterious use of the name ‘Aaron’ written across numerous works – including on the redecorated American football helmet, the image which provides the iconic poster for the whole exhibition. Probably it refers to the Afro-American baseball player and all-time home run king, Hank Aaron.

Basquiat wearing his Aaron football helmet

Music Another major theme in Basquiat’s output is music – evidenced by the band he was in, Gray, whose album you can still buy, the hip hop single embedded in this review, and all the theme nights he organised at the trendy Area Club, to name just some output. Music appears in his art as reference to his hip hop friends but also as a major thread of works circling around bebop and the great jazz musicians who he worshipped.

Post-modernism I remember how back in the 1980s we all spent a lot of time discussing what post-modernism meant. I am aware of its derivation from a specific movement in architecture and then its application to literature. But another, popular, interpretation was that it meant the end of High Art as a specially privileged realm. High and low art could be combined and juxtaposed for the sheer hell of it. On this interpretation Basquiat seems a textbook case of an artist who naturally inhabited this new realm, maybe helped to create it. Warhol may have taken commercial products and po-facedly turned them into art objects – Campbell’s soup, the brillo pad box, various iconic movie posters – but these artefacts were themselves highly designed – Warhol’s genius was in recognising beautiful design in the mundane.

Basquiat takes that to the next level, finding – and creating – weird, hypnotically compelling art out of street trash, a graffiti style, spray-can spontaneity, the deliberately undesigned. The Canadian art curator Marc Mayer seems to me to put his finger on it when he notes in Basquiat’s work

a calculated incoherence

teasing, puzzling, refracting, resisting meanings, resisting a simplistic definition of him as a black artist or a musician or a provocateur or a street artist or a naive artist. It seems to me precisely Basquiat’s genius that he was all those things, plus more, much more than the critics can still really get their heads around.

Beautiful And he was beautiful. You’re just having serious sensible thoughts about his references to the Western Tradition when you turn a corner and there’s some film of him dancing in his studio with a massive smile on his face. I took my 16 year-old daughter and she fell in love with Basquiat. I’ve dragged her along to numerous art shows but she told me this is the only one which has ever made her feel that art can be exciting, fun and cool.

Video

There are quite a few video relics of Basquiat, interviews, documentaries, the full-length indie movie he appears in – Downtown 81 – and the more recent full-length biopic, Basquiat directed by Julian Schnabel.

Here’s a documentary about his life & times in which you can hear the man speak for himself.


Related links

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

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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