The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe (1975)

I bought this as a Bantam paperback back in 1976 when it cost 65p. Now it costs nearly £11.

Tom Wolfe and the New Journalism

Tom Wolfe was one of the founding fathers of the New Journalism, a style of reporting which became fashionable in the 1960s, in which the ‘reporter’ a) was increasingly central to the story itself b) reported in the loose, slangy street style of the day. I recently read Michael Herr’s Dispatches, whose phantasmagorical prose style tried to capture the deranged, trippy experience of the Vietnam War. In fact,  it was only a few years earlier, in 1973, that Wolfe had edited and published the collection, The New Journalism, which crystallised the movement’s reputation.

Wolfe’s version was always urban and urbane. He used literary devices – sarcasm, irony, outrageously subjective opinions, and a dandy style incorporating onomatopoeia, multiple ornate phrases piled up between ellipses or dashes – to cover his subjects. His breakthrough piece in 1963 was a magazine piece about Californian hot rod and custom car culture titled The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. He followed this with 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a highly experimental account of the counter-culture author Ken Kesey and his hippy Merry Pranksters.

In 1970 he published Radical Chic, a scathing description of a party given by Leonard Bernstein to raise money for the radical Black Panther Party, in which classy, upper class New York intellectuals bathed in the glory of consorting with radical revolutionaries and – my dear! – such charming young black men!!

The Painted Word

The Painted Word continues the theme of skewering the pretentions of New York’s glitzy upper-class liberal elite. In this short book (actually just a long article printed in Harper’s Magazine in April 1975) Wolfe rips into the pretentiousness of the New York art scene, its struggling artists and its oh-so-precious upper-class devotees.

Wolfe identifies several trends in the art world.

The Boho Dance Since the end of the 19th century the myth had grown up about struggling artists making do with bread and candles in unheated attics while they grind their brains to portray the Truth. Above all the Bohemian (shortened to ‘boho’) artist knows that a key part of the character is scorning the despised bourgeois values, being anti-respectability, dressing scruffy, identifying with the people and so on.

The Consummation But in fact, without exception, all these struggling artists yearn for one thing and one thing only which is to be recognised and acknowledged. How does that happen? You are taken up by the rich elite, particularly the elite of gallery owners and their very rich sponsors.

Schizophrenia But having spent a lifetime cultivating the personality of the struggling artist, many find it difficult to cope with suddenly being showered with prizes, grants, exhibitions, books and magazine articles. Especially since a lot of the showering comes from the very people you’ve spent tour adult life despising and denigrating.

Picasso is the prime example of an artist who made the transition with style, buying suits at the finest London tailors, living in style with his numerous mistresses, and still managing to convey a raffish bohemian air. Jackson Pollock is a tragic example of the Boho artist who couldn’t cope with this sudden clash of identities. Wolfe describes the time Pollock arrived at the uptown apartment of his mega-rich sponsor Peggy Guggenheim to find a dinner party full of Top People. Pollock promptly stripped naked and pissed in the fireplace – but the Top People were delighted: this was precisely the outrageous artistic antics that, by the 1950s, the haute bourgeoisie expected from its pet artists. Spiralling into alcoholism, Pollock died by crashing a car which he was driving when drunk, in 1956.

No modern artist can escape his fate – which is to a) adopt the Bohemian pose until b) he or she is taken up by the art-loving elite, and finds their anti-bourgeois snarling is rewarded by dinner party invitations and cocktails. Neutered. Caged.

Cultureberg because the art world is run by a tiny clique of super-rich patrons and sponsors, who pay for the little galleries, commission grand works, fund little magazines, hold lavish opening night parties, and support the big museums. In a spirit of mockery Wolfe calculates that the entire global art elite – the culturati, the denizens of Cultureberg – number 750 in Rome, 500 in Milan, 1,750 in Paris, 1,250 in  London, 2,000 in Berlin, Munich and Dusseldorf, 3,000 in New York and maybe 1,000 scattered round the rest of the world. Say, 10,000 in all. A large village-sized population of artistic elite which decide who and what is the New Thing.

Wolfe makes the telling point that their decisions are generally announced in the pages of various magazines, as profiles and features, and in galleries as major shows or retrospectives. The public – which votes with its wallet when it comes to music, theatre, books or movies – has no such choice when it comes to art. The decisions are all made by the tiny art elite and only then do we, the public, get presented with a fait accompli.

Big money and high art

Thus, as he puts it, Modern Art – which was largely begun before the Great War – only became widely known after the Great War, not because anyone understood it better – but because the global elite found a use for it. It was only in the 1920s that the word ‘modern’ became so tremendously fashionable (as, Wolfe points out, ‘now’ was a buzz word of the 1960s – the ‘Now Generation’, and possibly ‘digital’ is the word of our era).

New York’s Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1929 having been developed by three rich women,  Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., son of the founder of Standard Oil), Lillie P. Bliss (daughter of a U.S. Secretary of the Interior) and Mary Quinn Sullivan (wife of a lawyer specialising in large wealth trusts). Its first president was Anson Conger Goodyear, Director and Vice-President of various railroad companies and he recruited Paul Sachs, son of the founder of Goldman Sachs, and Frank Crowninshield, editor from 1914 to 1935 of Vanity Fair.

Art has always gone hand in hand with money, back through Renaissance princes to medieval kings, through the monuments built to commemorate Caesars and pharaohs. What is distinctive about modern art – and especially in America – is the hilarious contradiction between the aggressively anti-bourgeois stance of so many Boho artists, and the staggering wealth of their patrons and sponsors.

A cartoon history of modern art

Barely had this trend got going, claims Wolfe, than it stalled with the regrettable interruption of the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. During the 1930s a lot of artists were put on the spot about their actual anti-bourgeois sentiments and found themselves churning out scores of images of brawny workers and downtrodden blacks. Fortunately (says Wolfe, in his breezily ironic tone) the Second World War came to America’s rescue, destroying Europe and making God’s own country the world’s first superpower but also – from the modern artists point of view – sweeping away the social realism of the 1930s which was now – in the cold light of the Cold War – looked suspiciously like commie art.

And so it was, with a loud whooshing sound, that the forward march of Modern Art resumed its stomp with the advent of Abstract Expressionism, a dazzlingly new style which foxed the general public (as all good new art should) but drove Cultureburg wild with excitement. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman – in their significantly different ways – produced a complete revolution in thinking about art which was a) God’s gift to intellectual theorists b) a specifically American look which Peggy Guggenheim and indeed the Federal Government could back and support c) and whose repercussions are still with us.

The battle of the bergs

The central and longest section of the essay is a deliberately distorted lampoon on the work of the two fashionable critics who promoted Abstract Expressionism – Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. First Wolfe caricatures the way the two men supported different artists in the movement by writing analyses of every-more dizzying intellectual abstruseness. For Greenberg the Cubists et al had correctly rejected Victorian realism and the absurd notion that a painting is a doorway into life, into a scene; but they had not gone far enough – you can still make out sort-of realistic objects in Cubism and related movements.

The Abstract Expressionists had gone one decisive step further and acknowledged that the painting is just a flat surface on which shapes and colours are arranged. In fact the flatter, the better, and Wolfe satirises Greenberg’s writings as increasingly shrill demands for evermore flatness, while at the same time decrying the great American public for not understanding the heroic work being done by this handful of tortured geniuses in Downtown New York.

Rosenberg entered the scene early in the 1950s and is responsible for a crucial extra element – he reintroduced psychology into what was in danger of appearing a very stale formal pursuit by coining the term ‘action painting’ (p.51). The painting isn’t a thing (no matter how flat). It is the record of an event and that event is the heroic manly painter wrestling with the inchoate materials of the universe to express his own deep existential angst.

Wow. So puzzled millionaires could now feel liberated to buy these splats of paint across huge canvasses (Pollock), these shimmering blocks of colour (Rothko), these disturbing lightning flashes against washes of plain colour (Newman), these blown-up black gestures which defied the universe (Franz Kline) because a) this showed how clever and up to the minute they were b) this showed how much soul and feeling and emotion they had and c) it showed how goddam American they were, and proud of it!

As early as 1949 poor Pollock was being hailed as the greatest American painter ever, not only in the art press, but to the wider world in a four-page spread in Life magazine. His famous drip paintings were made in the relatively short period 1947-50 and his later experiments, first with totally black works, then a return to more figurative, were not welcomed by critics or the art coteries who expected him to keep delivering the good. In a way it’s surprising he soldiered on till 1956.

And he died just as the new kids arrived on the block. Apparently Pop Art is dated to Jasper Johns’ one man show at the Castelli Gallery in 1958. American flags, numbers, letters, targets. He was quickly taken up by another berg, this time Leo Steinberg who, in Wolfe’s jokey narrative, manages to trounce both Greenberg and Rosenberg by declaring Abstract Expressionism not flat enough! This was because, despite the fact that it was all about the action on the surface of the canvas, in fact the Abstract Expressionist paintings still – if looked at a certain way – still had a sort of depth. You can be drawn into a Pollock or a Rothko.

However, the new young guys – led by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg – painted things which were already flat – the flag, numbers, target, letters or the photographs which Rauschenberg liberally sprinkled in his works. It was flat on flat. Flat squared. Ha! Gotcha!

But while Steinberg developed an arcane theory around Pop – claiming that it didn’t depict household objects in a realistic way, no, no no, no no, that would be a retreat back to figurativism, no no, Pop caught the interplay of signs which were such a feature of American life – a nod to the semiotics and structuralism becoming fashionable over in France – while Steinberg laboured to give Pop a sophisticated intellectual rationale, Wolfe sniggers that in fact rich collectors liked Pop Art because it was about super-recognisable and, ultimately, very reassuring things. It was American, it was fun, it was cool and above all, it was great to look at. Marilyn Monroe’s face blown up big and coloured in. What’s not to love?

Wolfe satirises Steinberg’s own confession that he resisted at first; he clung, like a virgin, onto his old beliefs, his devotion to action painting as revelation of the agonising struggle of the Great Artist. The shallowness of the new work upset him, but then – bang! – he got it. This was the next thing. Abstract Expressionism died overnight and all the galleries filled up with earnest Pops. Who also sold like hot cakes, much to the disgruntlement of the AEs who a) had never in fact sold that much and b) suddenly found themselves in the embarrassing position of being the old fuddy-duddies.

The Turbulence Theorem

Wolfe lampoons Steinberg’s resistance-then-submission story, saying it embodies what could be called the Turbulence Theorem of modern art:

If a work of art or a new style disturbed you, it was probably good work. If you hated it – it was probably great. (p.88)

The ever-increasing pace of art theory

Wolfe remembers attending the 1965 Museum of Modern Art show which launched Op Art, short for Optical Art, but which its practitioners preferred to call Perceptual Abstraction. The catalogue recapitulated the history of modernism – the cubists rejected the window-on-the-world idea, Abstract Expressionists had established the art work as an object as real as a table or chair – now Perceptual Abstraction reduced art to an experiment in the science of perception – to the response of cones and rods within the eye and to synapses of the retinal nerves as they processed the deliberately mesmerising geometric patterns of Perceptual Abstraction. Hence the name.

But Greenberg and Rosenberg fought back with their own post-Pop style, which they christened Post-Painterly Abstraction, also known as Colour Field Abstract or Hard Edge Abstract which was painting with the brushstrokes and everything expressive taken out. Not quick enough, though, because in the mid to late 60s another big school emerged which came to be called Minimalism. In his cartoon way of telling the story, Wolfe invokes the Turbulence Theory i.e. it can’t be any good unless you hate it. Thus the critic Robert Scull was walking down Madison Avenue and saw a wall of pictures which were apparently completely white. They were in fact white paper with a few super-faint words ghostly written in a corner, by someone called Walter de Maria. Scull disliked them so much he realised they must be genius, bought them all, phoned the artist and became his sponsor on the spot!

But even as Op Art got publicity Minimalism was stirring. Colour? Pattern? Canvases? How derriere-garde, how bourgeois! Paint direct on the gallery wall (Sol Lewitt). Put a pile of bricks on the floor (Carl Andre). A stack of metal shelves up the wall (Donald Judd). Neon tubes in a corner (Dan Flavin).

But these can still be bought and sold like any other commodity and displayed in art galleries, yuk, to be silently revered by the hypocritical bourgeoisie! Reject the art gallery, comrades! And so began Earth Art – a circle of rocks in the desert (Richard Long).  A spiral made of mud and salt into the Great Salt Lake (Robert Smithson). Photographs of the work would have to be enough for the smug uptown liberal elite.

But then, why have an actual object at all? How very bourgeois! Why not just have the idea for a work? Conceptual art.

And each successive wave prompted shrieks of outrage from the middle-brow press? Excellent! We must be doing something right. Classic conceptual art reduced the whole enterprise to words – documentation – describing and explaining what the art work would or could be. There was fierce competition to be the most conceptual of the conceptualists, which Wolfe thinks was won by Lawrence Weiner with his Declaration of Intent (1968).

1. The artist may construct the piece. 2. The piece may be fabricated. 3. The piece need not be built. Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

No paint. No canvas. No gallery. Nothing but words. And with this – Wolfe jokes – Art disappeared up its own fundament and re-emerged as pure theory, as words shorn of anything representational at all.

Epilogue

Where do you go after you’ve completely abolished your form? Well, post-modernism turns out to be the answer. The best explanation I heard of this troubled idea is that the core idea of MODERNISM is that there is ONE NARRATIVE – from Cezanne through Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, Dada, Suprematism, De Stijl, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and Conceptual Art, you can argue the case that there has been a steady series of waves, all operating under broadly the same parameters, each one represented by an avant-garde of pioneers who critics, collectors and public perceived as a kind of unified set of experiments on a single journey forwards, towards…

And post-modernism just stepped away from this whole story. Turns out there are hundreds of stories, thousands of stories, why get hung up about this particular one? You can have all or any of them, like flavours in an ice cream parlour. The very idea of ONE avant-garde which everyone had to look out for, keep up with, and which represented the latest step in an exciting voyage of discovery… over. Finished. Kaput!

Maybe the most interesting aspect of Wolfe’s hilarious romp through (then) recent art history is that he shows you how quickly it happened and how long ago all this is – and that by the time he wrote it in 1975, something like post-Modernism had set in. Meaning, a return to guilt-free figurative realism. He singles out the Photo-realism of Richard Estes, who takes colour photos of banal street scenes (generally shop facades) blows them up very big, projects them on a screen and then carefully paints them.

In the recent exhibition of American prints at the British Museum, some prints of Estes’ Photo-realist works follow the black and white lines of the Minimalist room and are accompanied by artists who returned to the deeply unfashionable genre of portrait painting, namely Alex Katz and Chuck Close. Their work just seems very, well, relaxed, after the existential agonies of the Abstract Expressionists. You look back at the tortured artists of the 1950s and think – to use the American expression – ‘Oh, just get over yourselves.’

The return of the repressed Boho

So what happened next? In the British Museum exhibition post-modernism is represented by a return to Estes’ street scenes, a load of portraits and various realistic depictions of the human form. What interested me was that around 1980 the show stopped being chronological and became thematic, collapsing into three isshoos – gay art around AIDS, feminism and gender, and African American art.

The casual viewer can’t help feeling that these represent a return of the wish to épater le bourgeoisie – the rallying cry of the late-19th century French avant-garde – i.e. to shock the middle classes. Reading the captions here and at the numerous other art exhibitions I go to, you get the sense that artists, and especially critics and curators, wish they were back in the age of modernism, when art genuinely did shock and stun and amaze, when it genuinely ‘transgressed’ and ‘subverted’ something, when it counted for something, goddammit, when it did shock and change wider society a little – and weren’t living now, in the age of finance capitalism, the age of Trump and post-factual politics, the age of Instagram and Facebook and instant liking and friending, when nothing much has any meaning or depth.

I looked around at my fellow ageing, white middle-class visitors to the American prints exhibition at the British Museum: were any of them shocked and outraged by graphic depictions of AIDS or slave ships or a feminist from the 1970s subverting gender stereotypes? Nope. To coin a typically powerful American phrase, I think the curators are confusing us with someone who gives a shit.

Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

America after the Fall @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition brings together 45 big oil paintings (no prints or sculptures) to provide an overview of American painting from the 1930s (with a handful spilling into the early 1940s).

After the glitz and glamour of the Roaring Twenties – the Jazz Decade – the 1930s were of course marked by the Great Depression, triggered by the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Broadly speaking many (but not all) artists’ interests moved away from European-inspired Modernism or from images of the glamorous high life, to the use of figurative approaches to depict a more realistic, not to say downbeat, world.

Industrial America

In 1927 the Ford Motor Company opened the biggest factory in the world at River Rouge, Detroit. Artist Charles Sheeler spent weeks taking photos of the plant and the landscape around it before beginning work on a series of paintings. I’m a sucker for straight lines, diagrams and strong draughtsmanship and also the romanticism of industrialisation and big machines, so I think this painting is marvellous. No people. ‘Surreally silent’, to quote the catalogue.

American Landscape (1930) by Charles Sheeler. Photo (c) 2016. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

American Landscape (1930) by Charles Sheeler. Photo (c) 2016. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

Next to it hangs Suspended power (1939). The commentary for the exhibition is relaxed and chatty, devoid of the usual curatorspeak, instead giving interesting background to the works. For example, after Sheeler’s visit, the Depression hit the plant hard and a wave of redundancies led to serious unemployment and a spike in suicides in Detroit. Unemployed workers marched on the plant in what became known as the Ford Hunger March, or the Ford Massacre, because four of the marchers were shot dead by the Dearborn Police Department and Ford security guards, and another 60 were injured. Shortly afterwards the famous Mexican mural artist Diego Rivera arrived, commissioned by Ford to produce some murals of the plant and its workers.

Many of the artists were committed to the new socially conscious political movements, the social idealism of the New Deal under President Roosevelt, or more left-wing Popular Front and even Communist ideas imported from abroad. This theme is epitomised by Alice Neel’s portrait of communist Trade Unionist and agitator Pat Whalen (1935). Joe Jones was a communist who painted scenes of everyday proletarian life, like Roustabouts (1934).

Street life

The 30s were the first great period of talking pictures, which some critics look back to as the Golden Age of Hollywood. As well as glamorous portrayals of high life in the musicals of Fred Astaire and so on, the decade also saw the emergence of violent crime movies about Prohibition gangsters and, as the 30s turned into the 40s, the development of what a French critic later called films noirs, gritty crime thrillers depicting a tough, dog-eat-dog world of crime and underworld in the big cities. This too is caught in contemporary art.

An oblique light was shed on this world (as on everything) by the famous artist Edward Hopper, a couple of whose works are here including New York Movie (1939). As in so many Hopper paintings the focus is on one person, looking down or detached, contemplative, detached from the realistically depicted scene around them. Up close it’s interesting to note the thick, rather ragged gestural use of paint: prints always smooth this out, flatten and simplify (and beautify) images which are, in the flesh, a little more roughly finished and, somehow, hesitant.

Gas (1940) by Edward Hopper. Photo (c) 2016 Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

Gas (1940) by Edward Hopper. Photo (c) 2016 Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

African American artists and subjects

I recently visited the British Museum’s exhibition of American prints which features a whole room devoted to African American printmakers and artists, with the commentary emphasising that many feel their story has not been told and the black experience written out of American art and culture. So it was a surprise to see the number of works here about black Americans or by them. These later accounts seem to forget about the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, when the Harlem neighbourhood of New York was home to the ‘New Negro Movement’ and a cultural centre for black writers, artists, musicians, photographers, poets, and scholars.

Far from being ignored by white authorities etc, black artists were supported. Aaron Douglas’s enormous mural , Attraction, was commissioned by the Federal Government to hang in the Hall of Negro Life at the Texan Centennial of 1936. It shows black Americans rising above the shackles of the past and aspiring to a bright new future. There is William H Johnson’s piece, Street Life, Harlem (1940), which does what it says on the tin, showing an African American couple on a street corner.

Far away from the buzz of city life was the harsh life of sharecroppers in the South, tied to land they didn’t own and forced to work punishing hours to grow cotton which was owned and sold by the rich landowner, who allowed his workers a pittance to survive on.

Cotton Pickers (1945) by Thomas Hart Benton (c) Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2016

Cotton Pickers (1945) by Thomas Hart Benton (c) Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/VAGA, NY/DACS, London 2016

And, of course, there was the out-and-out racism of the Ku Klux Klan and the terrible lynchings and murders dealt out to blacks by murderous thugs.

Country life

The poster, book and exhibition itself are dominated by probably the most famous American painting, Grant Wood’s iconic American Gothic (1930). It’s never left North American shores before. As a big fan of late medieval art I was delighted to learn that so was Wood and this double portrait contains subtle references to the late medieval/Northern Renaissance tradition: in the ugliness of the faces, the tremendous attention to detail of the clothes. It even refers to Jan van Eyck’s famous Arnolfini portrait a little in the way the man is looking at the viewer while the woman is looking away.

I hadn’t realised the word Gothic refers to the Gothic lancet window in the farmhouse behind the couple. The commentary draws attention to the bombardment of vertical lines, on the face of the building, the thin supports to the porch, the upright planks in the red barn, the upright lines in the man’s shirt and denim dungarees, and the shiny prongs of the fork, as well as the vertically elongated stretching of their faces. Even the spire peeking out over the trees to the left. All this is growing up, tall and strong, from the good solid American earth.

American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood. The Art Institute of Chicago, friends of American Art Collection

American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood. The Art Institute of Chicago, friends of American Art Collection

It was a haunting image even at the time, because so many nativists felt that the white settler pioneer and farmer spirit was being lost a) in the flood of urbanisation and city culture b) by the devastation inflicted by the great Dustbowl environmental disaster and the catastrophic collapse in prices for farm goods. But anyone expecting harsh realism of something like Dorothea Lange’s iconic photo, Migrant Mother (1936) is in for a surprise. Nothing here has anything like that intensity. In fact, although the audiocommentary includes an intense description of the destructiveness of a Dustbowl sandstorm, the actual paintings on display are lush and green.

And Grant Wood, with half a dozen works in the show, emerges as by far the most fun and entertaining artist, some of his works skidding good humouredly over the border between art and cartoon-style entertainment. Thus:

The last two could be illustrations for a children’s book. The Daughters hover somewhere between fine art and satire, but it’s an impressively conceived and beautifully painted work, just like American Gothic, it rewards close attention to the fine brushlines and strokes.

International politics

What Auden called the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s was intensely politicised, not only by the apparent failure of capitalism in many Western countries, and the rising power of communist parties, but by the fraughtness of the international scene, where the League of Nations proved powerless to stop the aggression of Germany, Italy and Japan. This is referenced in several internationalist works including this depiction of the Fascist bombing of Guernica, done in the style of a Renaissance roundel by, say, Titian or Raphael.

Bombardment (1937) by Philip Guston. Philadelphia Museum of Art (c) The Estate of Philip Guston

Bombardment (1937) by Philip Guston. Philadelphia Museum of Art (c) The Estate of Philip Guston

European modernists

There’s a section on American artists striving to be avant-garde who are in fact pretty obvious clones of their European originals.

There’s a section on American surrealists i.e. American artists adapting European visions of collapsed buildings, melting structures or faces, to the American scene. OK, but not convincing.

Davis versus Benton, Modernism versus Regionalism

The commentary explains that Stuart Davis and Thomas Hart Benton had a famous row about the future of American art, Benton declaring himself an ‘enemy of Modernism’ and asserting the future lay in manly depictions of real working lives (as per his Cotton pickers), Davis championing his variation on sophisticated European Modernism, which Benton found effeminate. Benton quit New York and moved to the mid-West, where he painted successful murals and was associated with the art movement known as Regionalism, which flourished in the 1930s and petered out during the war.

Looked at from 2017 the squabble seems funny and futile, symptomatic of so much political bickering which was to be swept away by the titanic upheaval of World War Two, and then the hardening of lines during the Cold War. In artistic terms, the bitter feud between American Modernists and American Nativists was eclipsed by the advent of Abstract Expressionism, heavily supported by both the New York intelligentsia and (surprisingly) the Federal government, which used it as a weapon against the deadening cult of Social Realism in the Soviet bloc. Then it was the 60s and Pop and then – whoosh – the floodgates to all kind of conceptual and post-modern art.

Georgia O’Keeffe

And then, as in every period, there are artists who stand apart from social and economic trends. Georgia O’Keefee, wife of New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz and heavily involved in the New York artistic scene, first visited New Mexico in 1929 and thereafter spent part of every year on ranches in the desert. Here she developed a unique style combining found objects with stylised depictions of the sun-baked landscape.

I found this work by O’Keeffe to be almost the only really grown-up, fully-formed, distinctive work in the exhibition. For my money, although lots of the others are good and interesting – in their different ways I really enjoyed the cartoon Grant Wood and the moody Edward Hopper – nonetheless, O’Keeffe struck me as the standout artist of the period.

Cow's Skull with Calico Roses (1931) by Georgia O'Keeffe. Photo Alfred Stieglitz Collection. The Art Institute of Chicago / (c) Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / DACS 2016

Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses (1931) by Georgia O’Keeffe. Photo Alfred Stieglitz Collection. The Art Institute of Chicago / (c) Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / DACS 2016

The future

There’s a striking early work by Jackson Pollock, from the period when he was still pursuing his own demons in the not-very-well-disguised style of Picasso. But already present are the torment, the swirling composition and the very wide landscape format which will form the basis of the drip paintings he began to paint in about 1947.

Untitled (c. 1938-41) by Jackson Pollock. The Art Institute of Chicago (c) The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

Untitled (c. 1938-41) by Jackson Pollock. The Art Institute of Chicago (c) The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

At a stroke (a drip and a splat) Pollock would invent the first authentic American art movement – Abstract Expressionism – the first artistic idea which owed nothing at all to European tradition and would itself open numerous doors to the explosion in American art in the 1960s and beyond.

This show acts as a kind of retrospective hors d’oeuvre to the massive exhibition of Abstract Expressionism the RA hosted last year. And the current exhibition of American Prints at the British Museum is a dazzling survey of new ways of seeing and making which opened up in the post-Pollock era. Together they form a kind of American trilogy.

From the vantage point of posterity – looking back past Minimalism and conceptualism and Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism, this American art from the 1930s bespeaks a country of huge geographical and cultural contrasts but all wedded to an essentially realistic tradition, or which has borrowed its modern art lock, stock and barrel from Paris. It is immensely enjoyable but all of it is dated, music from a lost world – with the one exception of O’Keeffe whose work, in my opinion, still stands tall today.

The videos

Promotional videos describing American Gothic.

60-second commentary on Ed Hopper.


Related links

Reviews

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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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