Not too long ago I visited the British Museum’s American Dream: From Pop to Present exhibition, which documents the American pop art movement from mid-century to present day. With Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes and prints of celebrities firmly lodged in the collective consciousness, we assume that pop art is about using luscious colour palettes and new printing techniques to elevate banal objects and create icons irrespective of the subject’s actual characteristics. Yet this aesthetic has often been the medium for social commentary and critique – a point that the British Museum exhibition drives home most effectively.
Sure, some pop artists were not always politically charged. Take Ed Ruscha. Having published a book of 26 photographs of gas stations in the early ’60s, he expanded on the theme with a series of vibrant prints of one particular Standard station, chosen for its appealing geometric composition (after a little manipulation of some of the proportions and perspective, of course). Whilst this particular gas station was located in Texas, the print evokes the sunny optimism and sheen of Ruscha’s home city, Los Angeles. The artist often played with LA or California as themes for his work, screenprinting a series of Hollywood signs and using an innovative process to produce ‘liquid words’ spelling out “Made in California” in the saturated colour of freshly-squeezed juice.
While American pop art has often concerned itself with capturing a vision of an increasingly affluent and commercialised USA, political undercurrents have frequently surfaced and left their mark. American Dream displays many examples of this, a few of which have really stuck with me. Chief among these is Andy Warhol’s deeply unsettling depiction of Richard Nixon, with his burning orange eyes, a near-gangrenous complexion and the tagline “Vote McGovern” as the deathblow. Willie Cole’s woodcut Stowage also makes for uncomfortable viewing; it comprises a blueprint of a slave ship and a border of irons to illustrate the continued servitude African Americans faced long after slavery was officially stamped out. More lighthearted yet still powerful are the posters produced by the Guerrilla Artists, an anonymous group with the mission of raising awareness of sexual discrimination in the art world. The exhibition shows that even Lichtenstein has taken on a political lean in his time: his instantly-recognisable comic book art parodies have featured above poems critiquing conservatism in society.
The exhibition ends with a cold reflection on the American dream. One print calls out, “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS CALLING IT QUITS EVERYTHING MUST GO” – a nod to the dreaded economic burst bubble and its casualties.
In many ways, society has improved dramatically since the pop artists started codifying social ills through printing. However, aspirations and optimism have been beaten down by economic strife, political apathy and chronic cynicism that shows no signs of abating. And the progress made towards equal rights for women and ethnic minorities in Western culture is by no means secure in the current climate.
Trump has promised to resuscitate the dream, make America great again. Sadly, Andy Warhol is no longer here to emphasise the absurdity of his hair, brows or pout with a rainbow of colour. Will a new breed of pop artists assume the mantle of political activism through print?