LONDON — The British Museum, famed for a collection ranging from Egyptian mummies to Roman artifacts to medieval manuscripts, has turned its gaze on the modern United States.
The museum's new exhibition, The American Dream: Pop to the Present , charts the half-century from the 1960s to the present through artworks broadly classed as printmaking. That is a deceptively plain label that embraces wildly diverse styles, from Donald Judd's abstract woodcuts to Roy Lichtenstein's comic-style pop art.
By turns humorous, lyrical and confrontational, the artworks suggest that political turmoil is as American the 4th of July, whether in the transformative 1960s or at the dawn of the Trump presidency.
British Museum director Hartwig Fischer said that "as a new president enters the White House and another chapter of U.S. history begins, it feels like an apposite moment to consider how artists have reflected America as a nation over 50 tumultuous years."
Drawing on the museum's own collection and loans from New York's Museum of Modern Art and other galleries, the show begins in the 1960s, when artists including Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns began experimenting with printmaking. A process that allows for easy reproduction, printmaking was perfectly suited to an era of mass media, mass production, mass consumerism and the threat of mass destruction.
Co-curator Catherine Daunt said Tuesday that the exhibition's title "reflects the sense of opportunity and creativity and the new technologies that were being used in the 1960s, this real burst of creativity that came about in the visual arts."
While some of that creativity reflected American opportunity and prosperity, "we also have artists questioning the American dream."
The bold images from the 1960s often come with an ironic twist: Warhol's prints of electric chairs, for example, come in cheerful pastel hues.
There are images of American plenty — Richard Diebenkorn's vibrant West Coast aquatints, David Hockney's Los Angeles swimming pool — and American achievement, such as Rauschenberg's prints of the Apollo 11 moon mission.
They sit alongside images of American tragedy. Multiple works show assassinated President John F. Kennedy or his widow Jackie, while James Rosenquist's "F-111" superimposes a Vietnam War fighter-bomber on images of children and consumer goods.
Others are openly political, including Warhol's 1972 piece "Vote McGovern," which depicts presidential candidate Richard Nixon with green skin and demonic orange eyes. Nixon won the election, a useful reminder of the limitations of political art.
Later, artists confronted new crises such as AIDS, in works including Keith Haring's graffiti-art poster "Ignorance = Fear," created for the activist group ACT UP.
The artists on show become more diverse as the decades go on. There are works from feminist artists including the collective Guerrilla Girls, who have been wittily challenging the male-dominated artistic canon since the 1980s.
Among the most powerful pieces is African-American artist Willie Cole's "Stowage," a huge woodcut image of an ironing board and irons that evokes a diagram of a slave ship.
Many of the works, especially those from the 1960s, are clearly the products of a rich and confident — if troubled — country. Visitors may think the exhibition ends on a more uncertain note.
The final room holds works made in the past few years, including Ed Ruscha's prints of battered, rusty signs — one reads "Dead End" — and his "Ghost Station."
It's a variation on an earlier work, Ruscha's 1966 gas-station image "Standard Station." The 1960s original glows in vivid orange and red, but in "Ghost Station" all colour is gone: The image is entirely white.
Hugo Chapman, the museum's keeper of prints and drawings, said Ruscha's original image was "a hymn to the open road and the possibility of travel."
"I think 'Ghost Station' is a very powerful symbol to show what has happened in the ensuing decades," he said.
"The American Dream: Pop to the Present" opens Thursday and runs to June 18.
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Jill Lawless, The Associated Press