The American Dream: Pop to the Present charts a wavering course through pop art history

Steve Hogarty
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Made in California by Ed Ruscha. Colour lithograph, 1971 (Source: Ed Ruscha)
The American Dream: pop to the present

This giant, twelve-room exhibition of half a century’s worth of American pop art gets the genre’s money shot out of the way pretty sharpish. A familiar multicolour Marilyn stares you down on the way in, a psychedelic Warholian hydra looming over the entrance hall. She introduces an exhibition that attempts to trace some artistic line of creative intent from the 60s to the present day.

Warhol, Rauschenberg, Ruscha and Lichtenstein are all in attendance, as you’d expect. They are pop art’s most well-inked outlines, and their work is littered throughout the roughly chronological exhibition. You find them in the earliest examples of the movement, blurring the line between fine and commercial art with their corrosive and colourful collages and bombastic screenprints. You’ll spy them again later, as the same medium became widely used in political protest and the civil rights movement.

One room peels away from the stuffy New York scene to arrive on the sunny west coast, where we find the movement’s unfettered colours abbreviated into hot, fruity oranges and bleached whites. The aspect ratios shift to that of roadside billboards, and the subjects become the leisure hallmarks of Los Angeles: automobiles, gas stations and shopfronts. Ed Ruscha’s five metre long precursor to Google Streetview photographs every building on Sunset Strip in one fold-out piece. Hockney gets a look-in too with his lovely Californian swimming pools.

Flags I by Jasper Johns. Colour screenprint, 1973. (Source: Jasper Johns/VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2016. Tom Powel Imaging.)

The thread of the exhibition makes a few logical leaps, however. The minimalism and conceptualism of the 70s – in particular the simple etched lines and monochromatic geometry of Richard Serra, Edda Renouf and Brice Marden – is framed as a reaction to the bombastic colours and abstract expressionism of the previous decade. This is something of a reach, but does allow the exhibition to remove its lips from the pop-nozzle long enough to include more of the museum’s huge collection.

It does leave things feeling a little unfocused though, with later rooms becoming smaller, rattling through the AIDS crisis, feminism, and reflections on slavery at an all too hurried pace. In this pop art equivalent of a quickfire round, contemporary activists and commentators like Kara Walker now find themselves armed with the printing tools of Warhol and Rauschenberg.

The final note is a depressing one, leaving you with the notion that this part of the American art scene has wrung itself dry, like a crumbling bit of old sponge. Pop art is rarely about optimism or time travel, dealing primarily in the present tense. But it feels like something in the psyche has collapsed. The dream died but all of the commercials survived. America’s locked in the cultural equivalent of a shrug, and pop art has nothing to report.

I’m sure they wouldn’t mind, then, if you walked around it backwards.

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