The American Scene – British Museum – August 2008

Take a step back from the subject matter, from the skyscrapers and boxing matches, from the futurist bridges and the Jungian blobs of ink, and be bedazzled by the richness of the collection itself. While modern art galleries around the world, particular those without generous philanthropists, struggle to develop meaningful collections, the British Museum restricts itself to prints, and has developed a staggering treasure trove from which to a story of twentieth-century American art can unfold. Sometimes less is more.

And even though the British Museum has *restricted* itself to prints, what one gleans from this exhibition is the enormous range of possibilities the print provides. Perhaps for the the uninitiated all the artworks are all flat black and white images of similar dimensions, but the media (and the plural is used advisedly) exposed in this exhibition inspire an array of different textures and surfaces – grizzled, controlled, velvety, precise, stylised, electric – from which American artists explored and recorded their accelerating country. While the subject matter may focus the spectator’s attention elsewhere, one can also marvel at the at the ingenious techniques by which these artists exploited the medium.

The American Scene starts in the early 1900s and finishes in the 1960s (an era broader than the Hopper and Pollock boundary posts in the exhibition’s subtitle). Much of the focus of the exhibition is documentary in nature; the modernist tendency towards abstraction is certainly tangible but never as intrinsic as it was to European avant-garde. These prints are not statements of aesthetics, but tools for both a laid-back and acute observation of the the country that is flourishing around their creators.

So we witness, for instance, the architectural explosion, the rise of the skyscraper, engineering’s clean lines, its squares and grids, its vertigo inducing beams of steel. Prints like Walter Drewes’ Hell Gate Bridge or Charles Sheeler’s Delmonico Building are typical in this respect. Electric light and logos are common elements. Prints allowed huge areas of dark backgrounds, allowing for creating night-time cityscapes with company’s names attached to office towers and illuminated by shards of proud electricity.

Martin Lewis, Little Penthouse, 1931

Not that it was all soaring Manhattan skylines. Many of the prints, particularly the earlier ones, draw on the traditions of French nineteenth-century realism. There is a Dickensian relish in the dirtiness of everyday life in some of Ashcan school prints. Some are faintly comic, and almost gentle in tone, but then George Bellow also depicts the trauma of electrocution, the victim blindfolded whist all bustle around him, in a print that prefigures Warhol’s printed silkscreens later in the century.

George Bellows, Electrocution

Equally, the agricultural landscape is re-imagined and the rural condition becomes more dreamy, tinged by an innocent, naive surrealism. Good examples are Wanda Gag’s Whodunnit or the bizarre sight of Doris Lee’s Helicopter, where the mechanical object floats above the farmer’s landscape as if it been pasted in by accident.

When, at the tail of the exhibition, the great American modernists (the Pollocks, the de Koonings etc.) home into view, the effect is somewhat disorientating; the sudden change of thematic focus makes it appear as if the stories, motifs and myths built up the earlier artists have been dismantled and abruptly jettisoned. Within the context of this exhibition, it feels as if something has been discarded without a good explanation. The immersion in abstraction, whilst powerful, neglects decades worth of artistic engagement with the growth of America the country. Maybe in becoming truly international artists, US artists had to shed something of their national identity. In today’s international picture gallery this evolution towards American modernism seems a natural, progressive thing, but here where it is the etching knife and copperplate rather than oil and canvas that is doing the recounting, a different story of America’s visual history is told.

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Filed under British Museum, Modernist Art

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