The American Dream: Pop to the Present
9 March – 18 June 2017
London’s ancient history authority branches into new territory with its first ever exhibition of contemporary works, displaying eye-catching American prints produced from the 1960s onwards
Renowned for its permanent collection of antiquities and exhibitions that shed light on bygone civilisations, the British Museum has spent the last eight years quietly acquiring contemporary works in a bid to preserve modern history for future generations. Alongside loans from prestigious international institutions, this exhibition will showcase its fresh collection of prints pertaining to America’s recent social, political and cultural situation.
With more than 200 pieces by 70 artists, the display starts in the 1960s when printmaking became popular, reflecting the values of consumer culture by being readily available, cheaper and bigger than other artistic mediums. Taking visitors right up to 2014, standout pieces by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Louise Bourgeois and Kara Walker are presented to record landmark moments and explore prevalent themes including racism and feminism.
In the wake of 2016’s shock election result, Warhol’s 1972 print of Richard Nixon will bear particular resonance for some visitors. As yellow eyes peer out of a turquoise face, the sinister image is undercut by the slogan Vote McGovern – Nixon’s unsuccessful Democratic rival.
Among the more optimistic works on display is the clean-cut depiction of a gleaming petrol station by Ed Ruscha, leant by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Meanwhile, at more than two metres tall, Robert Rauschenberg’s Sky Garden is a colourful homage to the launch of Apollo 11 – which the artist was invited to witness – where you can make out an image of Buzz Aldrin’s footprint on the moon.
Inspired by an 18th-century depiction of the torrid conditions of a slave ship, Willie Cole produced the huge woodcut Stowage in 1997. Using a real ironing board to create the shape of the boat, it considers the enduring impact of the slave trade on the social status of many African Americans. The print on display at the British Museum is the last of only 16 copies ever created.