“The American Dream” is the eagerly awaited survey of American prints at the British Museum curated by Stephen Coppel. Over eight years in the making, the exhibition follows upon the museum’s 2008 exhibition, “The American Scene; Prints from Hopper to Pollock,” also curated by Coppel, but whereas the earlier show with its modestly sized prints could be accommodated in the cabinets of the upper floor Prints and Drawings Gallery, the current exhibition is of another scale entirely—from the 24 running feet of James Rosenquist’s F-111 (1974) to the ten-foot-high tower of Donald Judd’s Untitled (Ivory Black, 1988), the show swells and flexes as it winds through the spacious Sainsbury exhibitions gallery on the museum’s main floor. The show’s location and ambition takes printmaking out of its usual niche environment and places it center stage in the British Museum as a whole. The result is a glorious, intelligent and well-crafted exhibition celebrating American prints over a period of some six decades.
For those still concerned that printed works lack the aura of unique images, this exhibition provides a powerful riposte; I would challenge anyone to deny the covetable qualities of, for example, Jasper Johns’s Grey Alphabets (1968), Richard Serra’s Core (1987) or Chuck Close’s Keith/Mezzotint (1972). Coppel has applied his extensive knowledge of print, combined with his close associations and friendships with artists, printers and dealers, to produce an exhibition that manages to delight the casual spectator while providing insights for the specialist and the connoisseur. Each of the more than 200 prints acts as a precisely placed statement, leading the viewer through an exploration of the American Dream, as revised by each generation of postwar American artists.
The exhibition begins with a wake-up call: Bruce Nauman’s lithograph Pay Attention (1973), whose backward lettering draws awareness to the reversal that occurs in direct lithography—the image seen mirrored—moderating the expletive it contains. It signals that we need our wits about us. There are things to be seen and things we might miss.
Nauman is followed by a wall of Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair screenprints from 1971—ten prints from a single cropped photograph of the execution chamber at Sing Sing Prison, printed in seemingly random color combinations—light gray on lemon yellow, turquoise on orange, blue on purple. Some read as positive, others as negative. This apparently casual indifference seems to mock the image’s subject, an iconic artifact of an institutional endgame, appearing both tragic and beautiful. From the start of this exhibition, it is clear that the American Dream has its dark side. Alongside the set hangs an early “pay attention” moment: Warhol’s Little Electric Chair (1964–65), printed on canvas, is smaller than the prints and shows more of the execution chamber itself, so the electric chair is chillingly balanced against a sign over the door, requesting “Silence.” Printed black on silver, the image is broken up by the weave of the canvas. Should it be regarded as a print on canvas or a painting made through screenprint? Either way, this solitary painting, modest in both scale and means, stands in sharp contrast to the overall decorative color of the prints.
While following a general chronology from the 1960s to the new millennium, both the exhibition and its catalogue are divided into 12 thematic sections, each focused on an idea, a place, a body of work or a set of artists. The second of these sections focuses on Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Jim Dine as “three giants of American printmaking,” presenting a thoughtful selection of work by each artist, through which their very different approaches to composition comes into focus: Johns’s habitual overall working of the surface; Rauschenberg’s gestural exuberance, the edges barely containing the image; and Dine’s front-on, centered, direct confrontation.
It is wonderful to see Johns’s Flags I (1973), a 15-color screenprint of two side-by-side American flags hung next to Flag II (1973), in which the same screens were printed in transparent grays. On an adjacent wall we can see how the ideas in Grey Alphabet (1968) were revisited in Foirades/Fizzles (1976), the artist’s book Johns made with Samuel Beckett. Dine, who recently gifted over 200 prints to the British Museum, is represented by a choice selection of some of his recurring subjects—bathrobes, tools and brushes. The inclusion of three states of Five Paintbrushes (1972–73)—whose subjects double in number by the end—shows how each stage in a print’s development acts as a work in its own right as well as a starting point for further ideas. Rauschenberg, who in 1962 famously declared that “the second half of the twentieth century was no time to start writing on rocks,” found in lithography an ideal matrix for his restless curiosity. He is represented here by his great early print, Accident (1963), which was printed from a stone that had fractured in the press, and which won the prestigious grand prize at the Fifth International Exhibition of Prints in Ljubljana, as well as by several works from his Stoned Moon series (1969), the result of having witnessed the moon launch from Cape Canaveral at the invitation of NASA. The resulting prints are full of grace, mystery and invention; space travel was one American dream that could be shared.
The rise of collaborative print workshops is given due attention, in particular the willingness to take risks and to enable the artist to dream. There is a wonderful sense of the “can do” relationship between artists, printers and workshop. In Europe the established workshops could be understood as accommodating artists, but in America artists were given exclusive and individual attention, meaning that all aspects of the making of a print, from the formulation of specific papers down to the manufacture of presses to meet a particular project’s specification, led to experimentation on a hitherto unknown scale. The resulting prints were often understood as objects, rather than simply images on a surface—carefully weighed and considered, amalgamations of ink, paper and process. No print epitomizes this better than Rauschenberg’s Booster (1967), which brings together lithography and screen-print in a self-portrait built from X-rays of the artist (Booster’s singular importance made striking its omission from the recent Rauschenberg exhibition at Tate Modern). The first collaboration between the artist and printer Ken Tyler at Gemini G.E.L., it stands six feet tall and was the largest lithograph ever printed by hand until Rauschenberg’s Sky Garden (1969) superseded it two years later. Certainly another pay-attention moment.
In the next section, the focus moves from New York to California, with a fine array of Ed Ruscha’s cool reductive images, marked by a distinct, economic use of process. As in the case of his books, such as Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) and Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), simple commercial photo offset was used to produce large editions to be sold cheaply. But even Ruscha doesn’t escape the spirit of experimentation, as evident in his 1970 series News, Pews, Brews, Stews & Dues, where each word is printed with inks made from foodstuffs, each recipe carefully listed in the colophon along with a promise that the information is factually correct.
There is also a choice selection of still lifes by America’s Giorgio Morandi, Wayne Thiebaud. His miniature Candy Apples (1964), made with sugar lift and measuring 5 x 5 3/4 inches, is a reminder of just how simple and direct great printmaking can be.
Throughout the exhibition, the curatorial choices are telling, especially in the case of Frank Stella, who is represented by his Purple Series of 1972 and Double Grey Scramble of a year later, works characterized by marked restraint of the artist’s early career, in contrast to his later expansive multimedia prints. That said, though the Purple series are one-color lithographs, Double Grey Scramble was the result of 150 separate screen printings (Ken Tyler again, who would be Stella’s partner in print until his recent retirement), an indulgence only viable for a blue chip artist for whom there was a ready market.
Stella’s work naturally leads into a section devoted to minimalism and conceptualism. Here the grid is much in evidence and the print portfolio much in use, whether in Jennifer Bartlett’s witty woodcut triptych, Untitled (Graceland Woodcut State II, 1979–80), Fred Sandback’s Portfolio with 8 Linocuts (1979), or the majestic Untitled Ivory Black woodcut variations by Donald Judd. In this 1988 set of ten prints, Judd puts a simple proposition through its paces and produces a composite work that stands as an equivalent to his sculptures.
The grid is equally at the heart of Chuck Close’s art, in his case drawn from the studio practice of “squaring up” to enlarge an image by hand. In Keith/Mezzotint he applied the grid to a photograph of a friend’s face, scrutinizing each square and rendering it through the demanding technique of mezzotint to produce a tour-de-force both in scale and endeavor. Pay attention.
Again and again, the exhibition throws up treasures: Eric Fischl’s Year of the Drowned Dog (1983), a set of prints that can be arranged to form a single coherent image, is one; Richard Artschwager’s soft ground etching Building Riddled with Listening Devices (1990) is another. Two woodcuts by Vija Celmins—an ocean surface and a night sky—contain an intensity and sublimity that can only be experienced in person; in reproduction the magic between their meticulous process and image is lost. These modestly sized works constitute another of those pay-attention moments—easy to pass by, but wonderful to savor. Indeed, though almost all the works in the exhibition are reproduced in the catalogue with large, high-resolution color images, I was aware of just how much is lost. Face-to-face with the prints in the show, one is aware that each is a considered engagement with a particular process or combination of processes and a particular set of materials. In reproduction, these particularities are equalized through offset lithography and coated paper.
As the decades roll past, the cracks in the American Dream become ever more visible. In one corner near the end, Eric Avery’s Blood Test (1988) is set against Roy Lichtenstein’s I Love Liberty (1982). Lichtenstein’s heroic portrait of the eponymous statue was created as part of a multimedia event responding to the rise of reactionary conservatism in the Reagan years; Avery’s large and visceral woodcut of a torniqueted arm captures the terror of life in the age of AIDS, a specter that also haunts Keith Haring’s Ignorance = Fear (1989), David Wojnarowicz’s Untitled (for ACT UP) (1990), and General Idea’s Aids Wallpaper (1989). The gleaming idealism of the American Dream has begun to tarnish, and the confident optimism of the earlier decades appears to fade.
The endless American conflicts over race appear here as early as 1964 in Warhol’s Birmingham Race Riot and are brought into contemporary focus through the beautifully restrained prints of Kara Walker. The most harrowing reminder of the darkness at the heart of the dream occurs in Willie Cole’s Stowage (1997), a monumental woodcut, printed from planks, in which the boat-shaped form of an ironing board is surrounded by an array of steam-iron plate designs, each like a distant memory of warrior shields. The composition purposefully echoes that of an anonymous 1789 woodcut of the slave ship Brookes—also on view—that shows its human chattel packed like logs. Cole calls up not only the horrific past but its contemporary legacy of domestic servitude. Pay attention, indeed.<
The catalogue is an important document that expands upon the ideas evident in the exhibition, reproduces all the prints on view (with the exception of four works added too late for inclusion in the text), and includes brief essays on and biographies of each artist. These are accompanied by two substantial essays: Coppel’s provides a concise account of the period, locating each work in relation to historical and cultural events, drawing out the themes of the exhibition; Susan Tallman looks at the growth and development of the American print studios and how they forged an ethos very distinct from that of Europe. In America, as she explains, “the printer’s job was to facilitate the artist’s ideas, to recommend known techniques and to invent new ones as necessary. The artist’s job was to make things that had never been made before.”
Apart from the large amount of manifestly great art on view, the exhibition further benefits from thoughtful architectural design. The visitor is led on a winding path from section to section, each with its own flavor and wall color, but visually connected to others through carefully engineered vistas and cut-throughs. The physical structure mirrors the curatorial direction, which encourages connections across time and invites dynamic participation on the part of the viewer, rather than a thoughtless procession. A particularly poignant “pay attention” moment occurs in the last room, where next to Ed Ruscha’s all-white, blind-embossed Ghost Station (2011), a rectangular opening in the wall offers a glimpse into the an earlier room, capturing the same composition in vibrant color—Ruscha’s Standard Station (1966). Perhaps the later print, emptied of color, signals the end of the American Dream. Or perhaps it suggests that it has simply been stripped down, ready to be reinvented by the next generation.