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The American Dream: Reality in print

A new exhibition at the British Museum
  • Where: British Museum
  • What: The American Dream
  • Open Until: June 18, 2017
  • Ticket Price: £16.50
  • Why go: “It chills viewers to the bone with its skepticism about the validity and existence of the American Dream.”

“Everybody has their own America, and then they have pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there…[these] seem so atmospheric because you’ve pieced them together from scenes in movies and music and lines from books. And you live in your dream America that you’ve custom-made from art and schmaltz and emotions just as much as you live in your real one.”

These are the opening words of the exhibition, the words of Andy Warhol, processing the impact and irrational strength of the American dream.

Vote McGovern© 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS)

The revolutionary technological advances in the production of printworks – pioneered by the Universal Limited Art Edits (ULAE) in New York – initiated the widespread adoption and excitement for this artform beginning in the 1960s.

The exhibition observes the American dream through the printwork of tens of American artists, from the 1960s to today. It leads the viewer through a chronological portrayal of the American dream, from pop art through to (the pre-existing) abstract expressionism, minimalism, photorealism, and figurative expressionism to today’s socio-political artwork.

John Jaspers American Flag© Jasper Johns/VAGA

The varying artistic approaches to the issue have strong underlying commonalities in both messaging and themes. In Andy Warhol, we observe the borderline grotesque celebration of American icons with the famous portrait of Marilyn Monroe post-mortem: her tragic smile immortalized in an endless juxtaposition of color – a vibrancy that inherently contradicts the subject.

The west-coast styles of Ed Ruscha and Robert Bechtle takes a more subtle approach, observing at a distance the objects of the newfound American wealth. This is brilliantly immortalized in Ruscha’s iconic series of gas station prints, shown in sequence side by side.  

Kara Walker Art Experience© Kara Walker

The exhibit takes an interesting turn when it strays from its indirect commentary on American life by transitioning from the likes of Willem de Kooning and Robert Longo to the racially charged commentary of Kara Walker – a welcome albeit violent jolt from the more metaphorical approaches.

By dedicating a third of the exhibition to the printwork resulting from social movements such as AIDS awareness, women’s rights, and Black Lives Matter, the exhibition seems to question the legitimacy and relevancy of the American Dream. The works transition from asking one set of questions to another: “What is the American dream doing to us?”, “Is the American dream real?”, “Why are we lying to ourselves about the American dream?”

Through its celebration of American printwork, the exhibition does so much more than spotlight incredible artists of the 20th Century – it chills viewers to the bone with its skepticism about the validity and existence of the American Dream.

Cover image: © 2016 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS)