Into the Abyss of Endless Reproduction

The Great Graphic Boom at Oslo’s Nasjonalgalleriet hardly merits the explosive connotations of its title, as it dilligently and patiently traces the history of American graphic art.

Nancy Graves, III Maestlin G Region of the Moon, 1972. Photo: Nasjonalmuseet.

The word ‘boom’ as a designation for a “period of great prosperity and rapid economic growth” is a genuinely American invention. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, its use as an economics term is interwoven with the rise of the USA as a global superpower in the late 19th century. Booming years in America were also the decades after World War II. The exhibition The Great Graphic Boom at Oslo’s Nasjonalgalleriet seeks to give an impression of this specific time and place. Right before entering the first of four rooms, images of Martin Luther King and demonstrations, advertisements and consumption, youth culture and the Vietnam War are projected onto the wall. The message is clear: the exhibited boom of American graphic art is also a reflection of a broader explosion of cultural life, political activism, social quarrels, artistic exploration and economic and political dominion.

However, after having passed by this montage of American post-war life the rhetoric of boom and explosion swiftly wears off. The bomb one was expecting to go off cosily smokes away as one wanders through the exhibition space. This is not to say that this exhibition of American graphic art from the 1960s to the 1990s is boring. Though it does not live up to the allusions of its own label, it is satisfying in a more subtle and low-key way.

Barnett Newman, Cantos, 1968. Photo: Staatsgalerie Stuttgart.

Following a plain chronological order, the exhibition features a diverse selection of works and artists ranging from Abstract Expressionism and Neo-Dada to Minimalism and Pop art. For The Great Graphic Boom the Nasjonalgalleriet cooperated with the Staatsgallerie Stuttgart, Germany, whose collection provided most of the exhibited works. The connecting link between the exhibition’s diverse range of artists, works and movements is the American print workshops that were founded in the 1950s. Workshops like Universal Limited Art Editions (New York) or Tamarind Lithography (Los Angeles) invited and worked with leading American artists, offering know-how and assistance that helped the artists produce lithographs, intaglio prints and other print media.

In cooperation with Universal Limited Art Editions, Barnett Newman produced a lithograph series of 18 Cantos (1963–64). Together with prints by other Abstract Expressionists, the Cantos are shown in the first room. As demanded by Newman himself, the prints lie on tables so that the viewer can experience them from up close. There is a certain irony in the fact that the prints of the Abstract Expressionists are among the smallest images in the exhibition, since their usual dimensions in paint are nothing but monumental. The sublime awe that Newman’s canvases provoke is reduced to the contemplation of delicate nuances of colour. Unlike in Newman’s famous essay, the Sublime is not Now but infinitely stretched out, caught in the abyss of endless reproduction.

Jasper Johns, Savarin, 1981. Photo: Nasjonalmuseet / Børre Høstland.

Set against Pollock and Newman’s American vitality and confidence, the little etching Note IV (1967) by Cy Twombly, who spent most of his life in Europe, appears like a foreign intruder. In the etching, the gestural movement of the artist’s hand is present as a trace inscribed in the line, which oscillates between drawing and writing. Due to the use of print, the complexity of Twombly’s enigmatic and suggestive art is further increased, for it creates tension between the indicated authenticity of movement and its simultaneous suspension through its technological multiplication.

Robert Rauschenberg’s printed collages of American mass culture are shown together with works by his friend (and, for a while, lover) Jasper Johns. The several lithographs of the Savarin Coffee Can motif illustrate nicely how the individual iconography of Johns slowly evolved over the years (ca. 1960–1982). In addition to painting, print media played a crucial role in this evolutionary process. The Savarin Coffee Can, which initially stood as a real object in the artist’s studio, successively transformed into a self-portrait of Johns. In one version Johns added a blood-red print of his hand and arm and the initials ‘E.M.’ below the can, thereby sending his regards across Oslo to the Munch Museum, where Edvard Munch’s Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm (1895) is kept.

Helen Frankenthaler, Savage Breeze, 1974 © Photo: 2016 Helen Frankenthaler / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

While Donald Judd’s playful geometric woodcuts are arranged beautifully on the vertical axis of the exhibition space, the unsettling blackness of Richard Serra’s big silkscreen prints of polluted waters is unfortunately turned into a mirror reflection because of the way in which the light hits the protective glass. Also slightly underwhelming are the Pop art works by Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. It seems as if both artists should have gone all the way when they adapted the imagery and production practices of capitalism and mass culture. They could have turned their names into brands and corporations that would keep up production after their founders’ death. Instead of staring at the same soup can for the rest of our lives, our consumer demand for new stimuli could have been met easily. But then again, Lichtenstein’s silkscreen print of a Brushstroke (1965), a side blow directed at the gestural potency of the Abstract Expressionists, is still fun; and Warhol’s Doppelgänger portrait of Jackie Kennedy at her husband’s funeral (1965), bathed in an impenetrable tone of blue, still disturbs through its uncanny and ambivalent aura.

Roy Lichtenstein, Crying Girl, 1963. Photo: Staatsgalerie Stuttgart.

Where the Abstract Expressionists almost seem to have worked against the aesthetic coefficients of the print media (not fully realizing they tapped into an alternative mode of presenting totality), the Pop artists embraced their commercial potential and flooded the art market with the imagery of the ordinary. In turn, the middle class entered the art scene as a new group of customers, for the mass-produced prints were affordable not only for the social elite. With Warhol, Lichtenstein and Ed Ruscha’s graphic works, the middle class could buy back an ennobled piece of its own livelihood and everyday iconography. The exhibition bears witness to such interesting developments as it plays host to a delicate and high-quality selection of American prints.