This exhibition held at London’s British Museum contains prints from the Pop Art 60s euphoric period, up to today’s offerings which seem to reflect more dark and disturbing times.
I loved the vibrant colours exuded from the Pop Art works that reflected a somewhat enhanced version of real life, and portrayed issues such as Hollywood (Andy Warhol “Marilyn” 1967), consumerism and political subversion. Two colossal displays of shimmering colour immortalised two main aspects of 60s America pre-occupation, the space race and Vietnam. Robert Rauschenberg’s “Sky Garden” (1969) showing a Saturn V5 rocket to the moon with surrounding symbology such as Aldrin’s footprint, was clearly influenced by the American space program. The depiction of a huge weapon used in Vietnam incorporated a mix of images, involving war horrors and an idealised sense of utopia for the everyday American lifestyle. It seems the confused moral issue here was perpetuating the myth that the US lifestyle was somehow perfect, whilst the government was trying to obliterate Vietnam! Another example of this underlying political subversion within art could be seen in the hilarious depiction of President Johnson and Chairman Mao as drag queens (Jim Dine “Drag-“Johnson and Mao” 1967), especially when it emphasised the uncanny facial similarities between the two men.
A small room within the exhibition screened video of the times in American history, John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Obama, with depictions of an idealised family life with all mod cons, Vietnam protests etc. These were juxtaposed with examples of art work from the exhibition displayed on another wall. I was intrigued by a Luther King speech accompanied by a beautiful Negro silhouette head and what I thought was an oddly placed but pretty cage (Kara Walker “Restraint” 2009). The cage turned out to be a form of punishment used on slaves that prevented them from talking, swallowing or sleeping, not so pretty after all.
Jasper Johns” Flags” 1973 print of two vivid American flags hung side by side had a surprising tonal grey graphite version as well. Whilst made in 1973, the darker one seemed much more contemporary and oddly prophetic considering America today. As my husband and I moved through the exhibition we both felt that the displays became far more abstract, dark and quite disturbing. Meaning became more obscure and despondency came over both of us that hadn’t been evident at the start. As I observed several geometric prints in the latter modern section, I deliberately quelled the voice in my head saying “ok it’s a square so what? A five year old could do that”. Instead I tried to interpret what the artist was trying to convey with the black outline of a shape with white interior. Could it be symbolically depicting conformity in society with no heart or soul, or a stark emptiness despite the bold solid looking exterior!
I’ve always said that America lost its innocence with the Kennedy assassinations. The process began with the JFK murder in 1963 and ended with the loss of King and RFK in 1968. The country has yet to recover from this assault on its national psyche. A more cynical, less trustful and hopeful nation took its place. Obama’s inauguration seemed to offer a ray of hopeful optimism that sadly did not deliver. Now the world watches as the days of President Trump take hold. This exhibition for me conveys that lost 60s exuberance and belief in a bright future and catalogues the journey toward today’s unknown and worryingly dark times.