Emerging from the splendour of your Georgian townhouse, The Montague on the Gardens, you might notice large posters of the Stars and Stripes covering the British Museum. Here to explain why Jasper John’s printed creations (alongside many others) fill the museum’s Sainsbury wing, we talk to the curator of The American Dream: pop to the present exhibition at the British Museum, Stephen Coppell.
The Pop to the Present exhibition is themed on the American Dream, are you attempting to chart its rise and fall?
“There’s doubtless an element of this. Take the gas stations you see in various places. Once a hymn to the open road, to possibilities, towards the end of this exhibition we see a ghostly apparition of one. But whilst this can be portrayed as a rather pathetic and dismal end to American exceptionalism, I think the focus is more on asking whether that optimism really existed at all. A good alternative title for the show might have been American Dream?”
Are you referring to darker works like Warhol’s Electric Chair and Rosenquist’s F-111?
“Yes, right at the centre of the post-war boom years lie several big question marks and they continue to run through the period. From the death penalty, overconsumption and Vietnam in the early days, through to some of the perspectives on AIDS and gender issues offered as the exhibition progresses.”
These are all political gunpowder – do you think art really changes history?
“Indeed, I’m not sure how much art actually changes the world. A good example of its impotence is Warhol’s famous Nixon print, underlined with “McGovern”. Produced to ridicule the presidential contender, Nixon went on to win by a landslide. I suppose, then, that art changes little but offers a reflection on or behaves as an indicator of the times.”
What does print offer that other mediums might struggle with?
“It offers the power of the image. These are indelible images; print at its best is incarnation-al.”
Print is all about size, brightness, enthusiasm and impact. Doesn’t that make it an immature art form, more suited to punchy advertising than subtlety?
“There’s more to it than that. Ed Ruscha said he loved “Glorifying things that [were] not ordinarily glorified”. Other artists were more interested in finding beauty in multiples rather than historically venerated categories such as “uniqueness”. And others, still, play with other tensions such as spontaneity versus design.”
If you have, looking at so much art, developed a taste for some of the finer things in life, why not visit The Montague Hotel’s Leopard Bar. Intimate and refined, it offers live jazz music and a delicious signature cocktail: The Leopard.
Images Credits: Edward Ruscha, Standard Station, 1966 © The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Andy Warhol, Vote McGovern © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. May Stevens, Big Daddy with Hats © May Stevens. Edward Ruscha, Made in California © Ed Ruscha.