When we speak of the genre ‘Pop Art’, various images may come to the mind, whether that is Marilyn Monroe’s dazzling smile in multicoloured print, the Campbells soup can, or comic book strips of damsels in distress, all of which are archetypes of consumerism. Whilst remaining faithful to these consumerist roots, ‘The American Dream: Pop to the Present’, held at the British Museum, displayed everything including and beyond this, effectively summarizing Pop Art as a significant vehicle within the artistic canon that continues to express matters dense with socio-political meaning.
Prints are typically perceived as a complementary work, possessing a lower aesthetic value due to their alignment with mass production; rarely are prints the star of the show. In ‘The American Dream: Pop to the Present’, the print is placed at the forefront of the exhibition, transcending the belief that its creative and expressive potential as a medium is not worth contemplating. Focussing on ‘The American Dream’ itself, we see much of the work featured embodying a sense of cynicism with regards to these ideals, exposing the AIDS crisis, racism, consumerism, and sexism as oppressive structures that have formed the dismal foundations of the so-called dream.
Beginning with what is quintessentially Pop Art, prints by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein are displayed at the beginning of the exhibition. Doused in bright, alluring colours are icons of American consumerism, a combination of the allure of familiar visuals and their vapid counterparts, successfully summarizing popular perceptions of the genre. A subtle hint of cynicism emerges from many of these archetypal works, exemplified perfectly in Ed Ruscha’s ‘Standard Station’ (1966). Displaying a gas station embellished in bright colours and titled with the word ‘standard’, it appears as though Ruscha himself is subtly criticising the basic undertones of ‘The American Dream’.
Standing in stark contrast are works that are not masked with glamorous visuals, embodying a blatant expressive purpose. This is demonstrated by the inclusion of Kara Walker’s ‘No World’ (2010), an image that may not be readily categorized as pop art to the untrained eye, due to its possession of monochrome tones and sombre visuals that represent the impact of slavery. The ability to embody commentary on wider issues is also demonstrated by the renowned Guerrilla Girls poster ‘Do Women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?’ (1989), which listed statistics on the sexist attitude towards women in museums and art institutions. Such works indicate that Pop artists do use the genre to voice their opinions, ranging from subtle to more obvious versions of critique.
For some it is unusual for an institution associated with antiquity to run an exhibition based on Pop Art, yet ‘The American Dream: Pop to the Present’ holds a window to historical aspects of American culture, and to the technical constituents of the genre, resulting in an intriguing historical narrative on America and its art in the 60s.
‘The American Dream: Pop to the Present’ will run until 18th June 2017 at the British Museum, Exhibition sponsored by Morgan Stanley.
Text: Libby Festorazzi