The current American Dream exhibition at the British Museum is best exhibition of fine art printmaking I have ever seen. I have been to other exhibitions there, such as Picasso’s Vollard Suite and the Japanese Shunga exhibition, both of which were really enjoyable and informative, but nothing matches the sweep of this exhibition. It looks at recent (since Pop art) and contemporary printmaking in America, with particular focus on how the artists are reflecting their contemporary culture. As you might expect, there are significant works by Rauschenberg and Warhol, but the scope of the works goes far beyond the obvious.
Some of the artists featured just happened to have made some prints and, because they are well known, their prints are included here, but I don’t think the prints inform their oeuvre or that they really exploited the unique possibilities of printmaking. Lichtenstein, for instance, does his usual stuff and it is indistinguishable from his paintings (though, of course, editioned). They could be giclee photographic prints. Other artists really pushed their work through the medium. For instance, Oldenberg’s etchings clearly relate to his more famous works but are uniquely themselves and Jasper John’s lithographs exploit the way oil based medium lies on the stone and can then be manipulated.
Rauschenberg was supremly inventive with printmaking, combining photographic imagery, lithography and screenprinting, all in the same monumental work. His life sized self-portrait ‘Booster’ (1967) is an object lesson in pushing an experimental approach and combining everything learnt into something new.
Jim Dine exploited the opportunities of printmaking by making a plate for the print ‘Five Paintbrushes’ (1972) and then developing the plate through subsequent ‘states’ to create a sequence of prints. The third state, fourth state and sixth state show how the plate was gradually enriched.
Two other stand-out works were Chuck Close’s colossal mezzotint ‘Keith’ (1972) both for its heroic endeavor (mezzotint is a very painstaking process, and most are, therefore, very small) and for the way he embraced the record of the process. Repeated trial printing reduced the tone around the mouth and exposed the grid system he used, and he chose to retain, rather than fight, this. The other work was Frank Stella’s ‘Cone’ (1987), a very large screenprint or a black shape, almost completely filling the canvas, with gently curved edges echoing his sculptures. The black shape is full of dense, raised, glutinous texture created by forcing oil paint stick through a silk screen; more inventiveness via the printmaking process.
In addition to the artists you would expect to be represented, there where many I was interested to be introduced to such as Kara Walker, Kiki Smith and the exquisite woodcuts of Veja Celmins. There were others whose work I love and was delighted to find represented here such as Louise Bourgeois and Julie Mehretu. Women are increasing represented in the exhibition as the time line progresses.
If, of the hundred’s of wonderful prints, I could take one home it might be Eric Fischl’s ‘Year of the Drowned Dog’ (1985). This series of etchings is full of the glittery light of the west coast and the sparkling colours familiar from a Hockney painting. There is mystery in the possible narrative around the body of the dog and the groups of people. From a technical point of view, the combination of techniques (aquatint, soft ground etching, scrapping and drypoint) to achieve the rich tones and then the outstanding inking make this a printmaking tour de force. The six prints can be combined in different ways to vary the narrative and I would never get bored of rearranging and enjoying this work.
This is undoubtedly the best exhibition of prints I have ever seen, and I think it may well be the best I will ever see.