Printmaking explored: The American Dream


The British Museum is exhibiting recent additions to its print collection that celebrate contemporary innovations in the medium.  ‘The American Dream: Pop to the Present’ presents a rich display of different US artists’ work from the last half century, beginning with the expected Warhols and Rauschenbergs before turning to the experimentations of Conceptualists and Minimalists – and also engaging with the political and social use of printmaking.

The range of techniques is fascinating and impressive.  Alongside the instantly recognisable ‘Flags I’ (above, 1973) by Jasper Johns – though here in screenprint form, using thirty-one different screens to create a pseudo-painterly effect – Jim Dine’s series of etched Paintbrushes (above, 1973) are more subtle, but full of charm with their dancing bristles against an ink spattered background that epitomises the debris of the creative process, the artist’s studio.

Ed Ruscha’s slick and witty screenprints – such as the iconic ‘Standard Station’ (above, 1966) – and his lithographs ‘Made in California’ and ‘Ooo’ which experiment with dripping pigment onto the stone plate to create colour saturated words in space, comment on the advertising and consumerism of sixties California.

The woodcut or linocut may seem a more primitive printing method in comparison but the results are no less distinctively modern.  Wayne Thiebaud’s ‘Gumball Machine’ (above, 1970) celebrates another ubiquitous Amercian consumerist icon, while further on in the exhibition Vija Celmins’ ‘Ocean’ (below) – a woodcut which took the artist a year to create – is so accomplished that one has to peer closely to convince oneself that it is not a photograph.

Beyond the minimalism of Donald Judd et al, we return to figuration and an interesting series of portraits by Chuck Close who experiments with paper pulp in his portrait of Keith Hollingworth (1981); the features are formed from a grid of small round pieces of dyed paper pulp in varying shades of grey.  A similar technique is used in ‘Phil Spitbite’ (below, 1995) – a portrait of composer Philip Glass – with the squares of the etched grid each filled by spitbite aquatint.  Another portrait of Keith, ‘Keith/mezzotint’ (1972), reinvents the antiquated method of mezzotint, rarely used since the 19th century, which involves rubbing back or burnishing the light areas from a textured (and therefore ink-holding) metal plate. Close was so pleased with the cumulative effects that this technique revealed that he allowed the grid guide to remain and this fed into his later work.

The accidental, revealing the hand of the artist or the flaws in the materials, was embraced by others too; indeed, ‘Accident’ (below, 1963) is the title given to one of Rauschenberg’s famous lithographs displayed here.  Producing some of the largest ever single plate lithographs – notably his magnificent ‘Booster’ (1967) and ‘Sky Garden’ (1969) – his ambition at one point got the better of him and the lithographic stone broke in the printing process; Rauschenberg not only made this a feature but even added some stone chips at the bottom to exaggerate the effect.

What impresses elsewhere – in the massed ranks of Marilyns or electric chairs by Warhol as well as in the careful, pale geometricism of Josef Albers (below) – is the exceptional choice of colour juxtaposition.  For all their brazen simplicity, the effect is striking, beautiful and perfect.

The second part of the exhibition addresses the political, both serious and satirical, from Jim Dine’s photo-etching with stencil colour ‘Drag – Johnson and Mao’ (below, 1967) to Warhol’s green-faced portrait of Richard Nixon above the scrawled incentive to ‘Vote McGovern’ (1972) and the feminist and race-related statements of Ida Applebroog, Kara Walker and Louise Bourgeois, among others, all making a powerful, unmistakable statement in the most simple pictorial terms.

The final gallery attempts to bring us up to date – most successfully perhaps by reintroducing Ed Ruscha, whose 1960s screenprints summed up the optimism of Pop Art and the American Dream.  Here, ‘Standard Station’ reappears, this time drained of colour, a simple embossed white image, a ghostly shadow of the high hopes of yesteryear.  Accompanying this are a couple of rusty signs riddled with bullet holes (‘Dead End 2’, 2014) – in fact they are mixographia prints on handmade paper, another extraordinarily effective technique – that seem to spell out the disillusionment in Trump-era America.

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Avedon Warhol at Gagosian

The idea of an exhibition pairing two artists is far from new; but the Gagosian’s inspired juxtaposition of Richard Avedon’s photography with Andy Warhol’s screenprints creates a dynamic game of compare and contrast between two of the 20th century’s artistic pioneers.

From Gagosian Gallery
Photograph by Richard Avedon. Copyright: The Richard Avedon Foundation.

Both artists were fundamentally concerned with portraiture, and worked to reinvent that genre in the newly liberated society of 1960s America.  The austere spaces within Gagosian’s Britannia Street gallery are divided roughly into a number of themes, from ‘social and political power’ and ‘celebrity’ through to ‘mortality’.

From Gagosian Gallery
Private Collection. Copyright: 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


One is immediately reminded of just how innovative Warhol was. He continually experiments with combinations of silkscreen printing and paint – and other media (a portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat is created from ‘acrylic, silkscreen ink and urine on canvas’).  Cropping, doubling, colour are used to challenge conventional presentation and notions of gender and morality – as in ‘Walking Torso’ (1977) – devices that Avedon also employs in photographs of counterculture, celebrity or notorious figures.

From Gagosian Gallery
Photograph by Richard Avedon. Copyright: The Richard Avedon Foundation.

Avedon expands the concept of portrait photography using scale – ‘The Family’ (1976) is a line-up of the movers and shakers of American culture and politics covering an entire wall, while ‘Andy Warhol and members of the Factory…’ (1969) is a life-size group portrait in three frames – and framing devices: a portrait of Francis Bacon (1979) depicts the artist twice,  arbitrarily cropped.

From Gagosian Gallery
The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution Dia Centre for the Arts. Copyright: 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Avedon often uses doubled images; Warhol responds with works that seem intentionally to play off the effects of photographic techniques (the silkscreen of ‘Keith Haring’ has the appearance of an enlarged negative image, exposed three times over).  Neither creates ‘perfect’ images; Avedon’s photograph of Louis Armstrong is heavily blurred, capturing the musician in movement, mid-performance.  Warhol layers paint, erasing subtle detail yet somehow saying a great deal more.  Both capture the transience of glamour, the rapid rise and fall of celebrity, the age of consumerism.

The gallery on the theme of ‘mortality’ uses these same methods to approach ideas of aging and existence, violence and salvation with screenprints of a skull, a gun, ‘The Last Supper’; Avedon’s ‘Brandenburg Gate’ photographs of 1989 sit alongside. Simple, frontal self-portraits confront the dilemma which Avedon sums up so concisely: “Photographs … deny that we age at the same time as they chronicle our mortality.”