This year I will be visiting America for the very first time. That’s right, and I’ve never even been out of Europe. I feel extremely privileged to finally be visiting the land of Uncle Sam, of stars and stripes and dreams. Since its conception in 1776, the US has had its fair share of ups and downs in its small history. A timeline in the exhibition showed the events of the last 50 years and boy, has there been some notable moments! However, America has always held a reluctant air of mystery for myself. While Britain is by no means innocent, vices related to consumerism, vanity, greed, wrath and pride; with Trump this doesn’t appear to be improving. Warhol nailed it in a quote that greets you on the way in and immediately encapsulated the ‘idea’ of America:
It’s funny but reading this I almost felt less of a fraud visiting an exhibition about a country I have never even been to. However, I have, like all of us, encountered it, and frequently. Let’s move on.
I met Marilyn next, and Warhol’s Electric Chair, both haunting in their own way. The colours almost mocked the nature of the subject, the repetition only emphasising the loss attached to both; Marilyn’s reflected her overwhelming fame and suffocating life in the spotlight, while the Electric Chair, by his own admission, became less shocking the more you saw it. Marilyn still epitomises the issue with fame and the chair demonstrates still the numbing quality of death in society today… or so I saw it.
The next artwork almost confirmed my suspicions with the last two. An outrageous collaboration of drastic scenes against the mundane by Rosenquist; a beach umbrella sheltering us from an atomic bomb, a shattered lightbulb, a girl having her hair dried with a bomb cone… it was absurd but perfect.
Of course I then came across some Roy Lichtenstein; I’d have been disappointed if I hadn’t. His work reminded me of the media’s coverage of wars, trivialised and told to us as stories almost fictional.
After this the featured image on all promotion of the exhibition, the work of Jasper Johns. I enjoyed his techniques in layering colours over one another.
More Rauschenburg met me around the corner, followed by Jim Dine’s unnerving self-portraits (typically a bathrobe with no head!) Alex Katz’s self-portrait was important, I feel. It was tucked away in a corner but was one of the main images that made me stop and think. Now, this is Pocket Rome, so I had to give Rome a mention at some point! Faces have been so important in history for communicating the identities of nations; it is still happening now. As humans we identify with faces and their use in media can be anything from aspirational to intimidating to propagandist (think Roman coins and statues of rulers).
Katz wanted to intimidate the viewer with a man “smiling in your face” rather aggressively. He demonstrates the wrong with America, the commercialism, the vanity, the focus on the ‘perfect image’. His perfect white teeth, tanned skin, trimmed eyebrows, hair stuck in one place; we all know people like this and often we know the smile isn’t real. Deep!
Richard Estes presented four poster images of shop fronts; these are exactly the image I have of America, and I was reminded once again of the Warhol quote at the start of the exhibition.
Andy Warhol did of course continue to pop up; I particularly enjoyed his Chairman Mao and Vote McGovern. The colours were gorgeous and it was strange to see them in this way.
Later I was pleased to at last see a classically influenced piece of work by Dotty Attie. It was weird and beautiful and altogether unnerving. Undertones of incest become more apparent when you witness Attie’s own breakdown in to smaller cards of the image. She has captioned each one, emphasising elements such as Cupid’s fingers on his mother’s nipple, or accentuating their nakedness. This strange image stood out against the others of colour and modernity.
One of the last images I saw, and that I shall finish on here, I think captures the tone of the last year in the US:
Haven’t we all. To be fair though, despite the undertones of civil strife and distaste for the higher orders, race wars, gender wars, foreign wars, America is one amazingly diverse and interesting place. And I for one cannot wait to visit it for myself.