Everybody has their own America

Altair Brandon-Salmon compares London’s two current blockbuster American art shows, The American Dream: pop to present and America After the Fall: painting since the 1930s

'Flag' (1954-55), Jasper Johns

The British Museum’s The American Dream: pop to the present show opens with a quote from Andy Warhol: “Everybody has their own America, and then they have pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there but they can’t see… 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.” For Warhol, as for many artists of his generation, America truly was a ‘Dream’, a vision of consumerism and kitsch run amok. The Pop Artists revelled in it.

Yet just a over a mile away, the Royal Academy’s show America after the Fall, proposes a rival conception of American art. While the British Museum attempts to track sixty years of ‘Pop’ in the US, the RA has a smaller objective—to chronicle American painting in the 1930s, in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Indeed, while the RA has a mere 45 paintings on display, the British Museum’s exhibition groans under the weight of mini-shows granted to Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and more.

It does however, allow us to appreciate how Warhol’s work grows in stature as the decades go by, even if his subject matter—Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and outdated soup cans—have become historical and cultural objects. Pop Art is on the one hand relentlessly prescient and contemporary in its predictions of what the West would like, but on the other hand, it’s stuck in a 1960s Cold War time warp, when television was still primarily black and white, and analogue media was all-dominant.

This tension is one of the more fascinating discoveries at the British Museum’s exhibition, although it is an inadvertent insight. It is born from the show’s wild ambition to cover 60 years of Pop Art: to start with JFK and finish with Trump, a scope so huge that art, artists, and events are reduced to shorthand and sound bites. It is only when, near the end of the exhibition, you see a long timeline detailing the events of the past six decades, that Pop Art’s status as a historical moment in time is emphasised and thrown into stark relief. The present has become past.

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America after the Fall however, resists bringing its art into the 21st century. The exhibition allows the works to speak for themselves—there are no extended essays here beneath each painting that assign a definitive meaning to the artwork. It means that even as iconic a work as Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930), whose stony visage glares at out you from the exhibition’s publicity, is allowed to breathe. We can see it for itself, and consider the beautiful precision of Wood’s brushwork, without our viewing being forcefully directed by the exhibition’s rhetoric. The RA’s balance between history and art is ideal.

The British Museum, however, claims every collage, silkscreen print, sculpture, photograph, and drawing as a historical-sociological document, as part of its relentless tick-box exercise: West Coast Pop, HIV/Aids, feminism, racial inequality, and Politics & History are each checked off with grim determination. This is not to say the art itself is not impressive—James Rosenquist’s F-111 (1964), a vast, 86-feet long mixture of paint and collage, is a glorious compendium of a still-young decade, while Ed Ruscha’s Californian screen prints are hypnotically sparse. Yet we cannot view them in peace. Through the winding exhibition corridor that directs our path, we can hear videos on loop of Martin Luther King proclaiming his dreams, Richard Nixon resigning, or the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses. Perhaps the curators were aiming for media overload in trying to create this ‘Pop’ exhibition. Yet they only manage to irritate their audience.

The Royal Academy instead allows you to wander freely around its series of three interlocking galleries. By breaking up each set of paintings according to subject matter (farming, industrialisation, entertainment, and so on), it avoids a single artist’s oeuvre being constricted to a single corner.

The paintings operate in dialogue with one another, letting us appreciate the connections between Charles Sheeler and Thomas Hart Benton for instance. Apart from a bad, early Jackson Pollock (which need not have been included), the works on display are of a uniformly high quality. Wood’s Death on the Ridge Road (1935) and Edward Hopper’s New York Movie (1939) especially stand out, lingering in the mind for their currents of threat and isolation.

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Yet if we are to conclude that both America after the Fall and The American Dream exhibit influential and startling artwork, then their differences—upon which rest the success or failure of the shows—come down to how the works are displayed, what contexts they are slotted into.

For the Royal Academy, the art is a prism through which to consider the economic hardship of the 1930s: for thinking about social change as America continued to urbanise, as mass media became a more dominant force in people’s lives. Yet the art is front and centre here. It supports these readings, or else we can chose to consider them purely on a formal basis, appreciating the grotesque colours and figures of Reginald Marsh.

The British Museum though, is constantly unsure as to what balance to strike. We are first greeted with a gallery filled only with Warhol prints, and the same pattern follows with artists James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein. However then the exhibition expands outwards to displays tightly tying the artwork to historical circumstances, positing Pop Art wholly as a mirror of American society. This intellectual confusion which pervades The American Dream show contrasts with the clarity of America after the Fall. Both exhibitions are full of important work, but only the latter knows how to present it to us.

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