‘Screenprint and the emergence of Pop Art go hand in hand,’ says Murray Macaulay, Christie’s London Head of Prints and Multiples. ‘Screenprint had generally been used for textile printing and was largely ignored by fine artists, but from the 1960s it became recognised as a fine art medium.
‘There was this idea of using printmaking in a very advanced way,’ the specialist continues. ‘Someone like Frank Stella, for example, created multimedia extravaganzas that were so over-the-top that no one even really knows how they were made.’
Macaulay notes that American prints have become ‘so familiar’ that we’ve almost forgotten what they’re about. ‘A lot of this art was breaking the mould,’ he reminds us. ‘It presented an alternative view of America and the idea of American-ness right from the beginning.’
The British Museum is now attempting to put this context back into the art. From 9 March to 18 June, it presents The American Dream: pop to the present, the UK’s first deep dive into six decades of American printmaking. Several prints from series featured in The American Dream will be offered in our Prints & Multiples sale in London on March 29.
Presenting works by some of America’s most important artists, including Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, Kara Walker and Julie Mehretu, the British Museum’s eagerly anticipated exhibition showcases the Museum’s expanded collection of modern and contemporary American prints for the first time, showcases more than 200 works by 70 artists, and holds a mirror to American society over the past 50 years. Here, Stephen Coppel, curator of Modern Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, tells us more.
What is the guiding idea behind the exhibition?
Stephen Coppel: ‘The American Dream showcases the print in America from the 1960s, with the advent of Pop Art, through to the present. It highlights that printmaking was a central practice for many artists who are now household names.
‘We look at artists such as Bruce Nauman and Ed Ruscha, and the persistence of abstraction in the ’60s and ’70s. We look at Minimalism, Conceptualism, and Photorealism — which is the complete opposite — and the return of figuration in the 1980s with artists like Caroll Dunham. Then the exhibition turns a corner and we roll back to themes of politics and dissent. Finally, in this new millennium, there are artists who address the position of America today.
‘Prints from the 1960s onwards tend towards getting bigger, bolder and more ambitious, so the works demanded that we display them in a much bigger space than usual. There are about 200 on display, but no one area that dominates.’
This is the first time the British Museum is showing its expanded collection of modern and contemporary American prints. Can you tell us more about the collection?
SC: ‘Some 70 per cent of the works in this show were drawn from the collection of the British Museum itself. Ten years ago we wouldn’t have been in the position to put on an exhibition like this, because we wouldn’t have had the material to draw upon. We have acquired almost 100 prints in the past decade. These acquisitions were supported by artists like Jim Dine, private collectors, and British Museum patrons like the Vollard Group.
‘The exhibit also includes very important loans from MoMA in New York, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Tate and the V&A, as well as private collectors. It is very much a collective effort.’
What’s your favourite work in the show?
SC: ‘Rauschenberg’s ‘Stoned Moon’ project from 1969 celebrates the first landing of man on the Moon. It was commissioned by NASA, and usually a commission like this would be relatively staid, but for Rauschenberg it’s the complete opposite. He witnessed the launch at Cape Kennedy and collected many photographs of astronauts and mission control. Armed with this material, and his own photographs, he went to work at [the printmaking studio] Gemini in Los Angeles. In the next couple of months he produced an extraordinary series of lithographs. One of them, Sky Garden, was the largest hand-pulled lithograph ever produced — at 89 inches in height — when it was created in 1969.’
Are there works visitors might not have seen before?
SC: ‘Visitors may not know a work by May Stevens — Big Daddy with Hats. Stevens was one of the early feminist artists. In the late ’60s to early ’70s she produced a series based on her father, who appears as a symbol of right-wing authoritarianism and the smugness of Middle America. It’s not a work that would be very well known here, but it’s particularly resonant.’
As printmaking took off in the 1960s, how important were the printers themselves and their workshops?
SC: ‘An incredible freewheeling experimentation took place between the artists shown in this exhibit and the highly skilled printers working in state-of-the-art workshops on the East and West coasts. These shops became magnets — places where artists could make really ambitious prints. There was no end to their imagination; it was a real can-do, optimistic attitude. And that is reflected in the exhibition.’
What has excited you most about the exhibit?
SC: ‘What one sees in this exhibition is just how exciting the work produced in America has been over the past 50 to 60 years. And the vitality of printmaking remains: the work being produced now by Kara Walker is equal to that produced by Rauschenberg in the 1960s. They address different issues, but the vitality is there.’
What would you like viewers to take away with them from the exhibition?
SC: ‘I very much hope that they’ll remember just how exciting and extraordinary this period of creativity in America has been. It’s really the great renaissance of the print — the pieces produced were and are remarkable in their ambition, scale, boldness and size, reflecting the can-do attitude in America of the time.’
The American Dream: pop to present runs from 9 March to 18 June 2017, Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery (Room 30), British Museum, London