Hi there, today I'm going to be talking about an exhibition at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, called The American Scene, Prints from Hopper to Pollock. What the exhibition features is almost a dead giveaway, but I’ll explain it anyway. The exhibition covers (gasp) American Printmaking, from the early 20th century, to the1960’s, and is the most comprehensive exhibition of American printmaking of this period one could hope to see. The prints are the highlights from the venerable British Museum’s collection, and this is the last leg of a tour that has already had an airing in Nottingham and Brighton. It also feels a little like the Whitworth is trying to tempt back the more MOR type gallery goer, with an entirely 2D exhibition about modern prints, after the madness that was Marina Abromovich, but maybe I’m being too cynical. All very well, but is it worth going to see?
the exhibition is straight to the point, and even goes as far as having it’s “Stars” in it’s title, and they are undoubtedly two of America’s most famous artists, but artists who are primarily painters, who are not renowned for their printmaking. Indeed, it is slightly misleading; if you’re going in expecting lashings of Hopper and Pollock, you’ll be disappointed. There are only two Hopper prints, and not a huge amount of Pollock’s work. That said though, the rest of the work more than makes up for this.
These two stars chronologically bookend the exhibition, which is split up into 12 “chapters” showing the progress of American printmaking over this period. These chapters divide the work up either stylistically, thematically, but always chronologically, so you always have a sense of where you are within the framework the exhibition sets out. This does make the exhibition feel like you’re wandering around a life size coffee table book, and is Unfortunately about as thrilling as this.
The work itself is good, if a little unexciting. Starting out in 1900, we have the work of the Ashcan school, known for its gritty social realism, which is art world slang for stuff that isn’t dead posh. This mainly illustrative work is sentimental in it’s unsentimentally, showing a daily life which is now long gone. This work is interesting insofar as it was the work that informed the next generation or American Artists, the Hopper’s and Pollock’s of the exhibition’s title.
Fast forward a few chapters to American modernism, and the work begins to portray the skyscrapers and industry we associate with American art, and the new type of society American money was creating. Modernism had made its way across the Atlantic with the Armory show of 1913, and the effect here is visible. Hopper’s, Night on the El Train (1918), uses the new psychological space of the city, as a backdrop for his human drama’s to unfold, as well as showing the influence the new technologies of film and photography were having on traditional art. Louis Lozowick’s New York, (1925) uses the straight lines of the city to produce a striking and almost abstract rendering of the metropolis. Charles Sheeler’s Delmonico Building (1926) is a highlight, showing through a bold use of tonality the effect the new architecture was having on the traditional city.
During the next phase we are shown that American art appears to take a step back towards figurative art with the bizarre Satirical Realism (surrealism?) and Regionalism. The Regionalists turned their back on abstraction, and concentrated on homespun portrayals of rural America. Interestingly, that master of abstraction, Pollock turns up here with a bucolic haymaking scene.
It isn’t really until the Depression kicks in, and Roosevelt’s Federal Art Project provides the means for artists to start producing more socially aware printmaking that there is progression. Free from the constraints of the market (much of this work was destined for schools and hospitals), the themes of poverty, the plight of the African American and the harsh working conditions of miners are prominent, and abstraction comes back into play, undoubtedly influenced by artists fleeing fascist persecution in Europe. A new technique, called screen-printing, is developed and is used to great effect by Robert Gwathmay, in The Hitchhiker (1937), which shows the struggle of finding work in the depression against a backdrop of consumerism. The bold use of colour here contrasts the poor world of reality, with the rich world of advertising. American politics is touched upon for the first time and continues into the next chapter, showing the effects the Second World War had on American printmaking, and the patriotic guff that resulted.
Hidden away, on the opposite wall is a short chapter on American geometric abstraction, which includes work by Josef Albers, whose clean, experimental style influenced a new generation of Artists. Albers was opposed to the socially conscious art produced at the time and this influenced the artists to follow.
Then we get to the post war area, which is, to say the least, quite different from that which has gone before. This area is separated from the previous chapter, and one is confronted the two largest prints in the gallery before being allowed through. The grotesque and misshapen forms of Leonard Baskin’s Hydrogen Man, and Man of Peace, two life-size pieces that stare out of their frames, and signify an America grappling with the power and responsibility of the atomic age. These are two of the most interesting pieces in the exhibition, and having them in such an unavoidable and inescapable position reinforces the manifestly necessary issue they confront. Their figurative nature does mark them apart from the rest of the work in this chapter, where Abstract Expressionism’s effect on printmaking is explored.
The work of Atelier 17, a collaborative workshop for printmaking, is the subject of chapter 10, and shows a much more experimental approach. This conceptual approach to printmaking is exemplified by the work of Louise Bourgeoise, and the last series of prints she made before she turned to sculpture shown here is a definitely one of the highlights of this exhibition. The prints themselves show spindly constructions, which echo the modernist treatment of the American cityscape earlier on. These are accompanied by a short statement, which resonates strangely with the image, to produce something, if you’ll pardon the expression, otherworldly.
Pollock’s work rounds off the exhibition in Chapter 12, but, as the guide explains to us “[the abstract expressionists] also resisted printmaking because of it’s associations with the socially conscious WPA” so what is shown are some prints that look quite like Pollock’s paintings. Although it’s nice to see the work around such show stopping and monumental pieces Pollock’s “Action paintings”, it seems a bit of damp squib to have this as the zenith of the period being discussed. Absract Expressionism is the first major art movement to emerge from the USA, so it’s fitting to end the Exhibition with a genesis and a revelation, at the same time.
Curiously absent from an Exhibition of American printmakers, is the most famous American printmaker, Andy Warhol. Although his large scale screen-prints probably would have drowned out any of the other pieces on display. Still, I feel it’s an opportunity missed, as Hopper and Warhol arguably have more in common than Hopper and Pollock.
The exhibition is a good one and well worth a few hours of your time, especially as so many of the artists shown are barely known outside of the US. Although it does show how lacking Amercian art was until the it was lit by the influx of European ideas. The work American Artists were producing appears downright regressive compared to the work that the Bauhaus or Russian Avant garde was producing at around the same time. In fact, there’s almost a correlation between how experimental American Art is, and when Socialist realism becomes the official standard of the U.S.S.R. But perhaps I’m reading too much into things.
The exhibit does suffer a little from feeling like it should be in a museum rather than an art gallery, but this might just be a downside to how comprehensive it is, rather than it feeling lifeless. Which is a good thing.
The American Scene; prints from Hopper to Pollock is at the Whitworth Art Gallery until the 13th December 2009