World class institutions, such as the British Museum, put their reputation on a line when they introduce changes in their artistic orientation, which can result in praise for innovation or the loss of prestige. In this vertiginous adventures is where we find their relevance and aesthetic depth.
The British Museum recently announced a complete renovation of its main hall—the Salisbury—which will focus on Pop art from the 1960s and 70s. Under the banner The American Dream, the Museum promises to incorporate more than 200 original works by more than 70 American artists that illustrate the change towards modern consumer society.
Hartwig Fischer—the institution’s current director—has said that curators are working rigorously “trying to live up to their responsibility” of introducing pieces that create fluidity between modernity and “themes that represent the present.” Their goal is to safeguard this legacy for generations to come. Fisher steers away from the skeptics by stating, “This is a museum that goes back as far as possible in history, but always looking to the future.”
Pop art brings to the British a deep reflection of the imagery of contemporary society. Characterized by the postwar angst and a reassessment of life, it breaks the barren judgments of the fine arts to merge advertisement and photography with painting and sculpture, among other genres.
The result gives rise to far more useful messages and the elevation of a suite of characters that are part of the collective consciousness of the ordinary American citizen. One of the greatest exponents—whose works will be on display—is Andy Warhol (Pittsburgh, August 6, 1928 – New York, February 22, 1987), a painter, draftsman, filmmaker and sculptor who achieved worldwide fame after the opening of his first exhibition in New York on November 6, 1962, when a silkscreen titled Marilyn Diptych was released after the actress’s death on August 5 of the same year (The work currently belongs to the Tate Modern Museum).
Among the amazing pieces featured in the British Museum’s exhibition is Vote McGovern from 1966, made for the presidential campaign of George McGovern who challenged Richard Nixon in 1972. The work represents a satirical and controversial facet of the man who would win the elections. The intense blues and oranges of the face give the work a unique and striking expressiveness.
Another influential figure in the show is Wayne Thiebaud (1920), who became famous for painting “common” objects, emphasizing color and contrast. In his works, the play of shadows and light take on the irresistible force of propaganda. Also on view, Made in California (1971) by Edward Ruscha, Sky Garden, from Stoned Moon (1969) by Robert Rauschenberg, Standard Station (1969) also by Ed Ruscha, and No World (2010) by Kara Walker.
Although both concepts are often used alternatively, each has its characteristics and should be explained. Modern art does not determine the aesthetic movement of a particular historical period. On the contrary, it is used to define those currents opposed to academic art—whatever its time. It is innovation, experimentation, a challenge to tradition. On the other hand, in its most ephemeral sense, contemporary art has been developed from the 18th century to the present. It is the art of the contemporary age, without an essential transgressive or revolutionary criteria. Therefore, we could conclude that, in one sense or another, both concepts are acceptable to define Pop Art.
The exhibition opens on 9 March 2017, The American Dream. “Salisbury,” British Museum, London. ■