Andrew Graham-Dixon examines Andy Warhol's soup can paintings, interviews pop artist James Rosenquist, looks at Ed Ruscha's work and visits Jeff Koons's studio.
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This programme contains some strong language
Las Vegas. It isn't just a city.
It's the world's largest, brightest, brashest neon work of art.
I also think it's a perfect symbol
of what America's been for so much of the modern age.
It stands for its irrepressible, unsleeping,
can-do spirit of optimism.
This astonishing something created out of nothing.
An Emerald City rising where 100 years ago,
there was just desert.
Like the rest of America, Vegas was built on an ideal,
a place where anyone can turn fantasy into reality.
Where anyone can get rich.
Where anyone can become President.
Free market, free society, that was the dream.
But is it all a mirage?
In the new world of the 21st century,
America seems like a country in crisis,
a nation that's lost its swagger,
and along with that the belief that ITS values, life, liberty,
the pursuit of happiness,
should be THE core values of the civilised world.
It's become a more plural society, but also a more anxious one.
And I think if you want to truly understand the vast changes
that have transformed America's ways of seeing and thinking,
there's no better way to do that
than by exploring the story of American art.
In the years after World War II, suburban America
became the battleground for the soul of the nation.
An unprecedented economic boom enabled ordinary Americans
to enjoy all the pleasures of modern life.
Motorcars, fridges, freezers, television sets.
But this sense of security was bought at a price.
The invention of the atom bomb brought about a new world order.
From now on, the USA and the Soviet Union
would be locked in a rival nuclear stalemate,
each defining itself as hero nation
with a mission to vanquish the enemy.
And with the most deadly of all weapons available to the Russians,
no people in the world can feel secure against this aggression.
We believe in freedom.
Freedom, born of the conviction that every person is a child of God,
and is therefore of supreme worth.
We want freedom for ourselves, for everyone.
In Russia, the state owned everything.
The American way was about private home ownership and free enterprise.
In the late '40s, the US government encouraged entrepreneur builders
like William J Levitt, to create affordable homes for the masses.
Levittown, in Long Island, New York, is a perfect example
of the new American suburbs that went up in the 1940s and 1950s.
17,500 houses constructed in just four years.
Built from cheap affordable materials,
and assembled using a version of the same production-line process
that Henry Ford had applied to the mass manufacture of automobiles.
These simple, box-like structures
were the homes of a new form of the American Dream.
But if Levittown's cookie-cutter houses all looked the same,
then so did the faces.
Levittown rules explicitly barred any residents
who were not of the Caucasian race.
The dream might be for you
if you were a white Anglo-Saxon patriot, preferably male.
But of course, beneath the surface,
America was teeming with desperate housewives,
blacks, Hispanics, and many others
whose fears and frustrations remained completely obscured.
In 1954, small-town Southern boy, Jasper Johns,
settled in New York city,
and began to paint the ultimate symbol of American-ness.
The Stars and Stripes.
He painted subtle variations on it,
but always fetishising the same familiar image.
At the time, most American artists were painting
Johns' flags seemed refreshingly new and direct.
But what were they?
Outpourings of patriotic fervour?
A different kind of abstraction?
Or something else?
The Metropolitan Museum in New York houses my favourite
of Johns' flags, painted not in the usual red white and blue,
but simply white and on a vast scale.
When Johns first presented his flag pictures
to the American public in the 1950s,
he was extremely reticent about their meanings.
He said, "I simply paint things the mind already knows."
The implication being that the flag was almost a non-subject,
it was such a universally recognisable symbol
that what meaning could it possibly possess?
These were purely formal paintings.
What a load of nonsense.
These are angry, passionate pictures,
they are Johns' way of saying, of expressing
what he felt was wrong with American society in the 1950s.
Look at what this picture is made of.
It's made of a collage of newsprint,
a babble of muffled American voices,
muffled by this thick heavy layer of encaustic beeswax oil-paint.
The picture is a metaphor.
The picture is a metaphor for Johns' perception that America is a place
where you're supposed to have freedom of speech,
you're supposed to have freedom of behaviour
but actually, you don't.
This is a picture of America, as it were, buried beneath
the thick, heavy snow of a cold
and illiberal idea
of patriotic duty.
Johns had good reason to be anxious about the moral status quo.
He was living in a homosexual relationship
with artist Robert Rauschenberg,
which was not only illegal,
but in an age of McCarthyite witch-hunts,
it could also get you branded as a dangerous commie subversive.
To be a fine, upstanding member of American society,
you had to embrace all its values,
above all, the freedom to shop.
This was the moment when advertising came of age,
when ad men learnt how to stop lecturing,
and instead practise the dark arts of seduction.
They exploited hyperreal colours
and graphic brand logos to repeat the mantra,
"You can never have too much".
By the early '60s,
a new generation of artists
was confronting the strangeness of consumer society.
Jasper Johns and his flags had already begun
to dig beneath the surface of America's brave new world.
Those who followed called themselves pop artists,
their subject being popular culture.
Their work seemed just as enticing
as the goods piled high in the new shopping malls...
but it concealed a bitter aftertaste.
Claes Oldenburg made supersize,
floppily repulsive hamburgers out of stuffed cloth
as if to lay bare
the excesses provoked by the rise of fast food chains.
The dot matrix language of comics
inspired the work of Roy Lichtenstein,
but always with an uneasy sense that the modern world
was simplifying human emotions to cartoon stereotypes.
James Rosenquist created vast canvases of collaged images,
poster-bright impressions of the modern world,
mimicking the vomitous splurge
of America's yowling jungle of signs.
Like most pop artists, Rosenquist began as a commercial artist,
part of the very establishment that he would go on to parody
in his later work.
Rosenquist is one of the last truly great surviving pop artists.
And he's still making his vast pictures.
Here's a late number I did this year.
"The Richest Person Looking At A Universe...
"Through A Hubcap."
It's not THE universe, it's A universe
because there's many universes.
In his early years, Rosenquist earned a living
by painting ads on the billboards of Times Square.
That's him, bottom right.
I painted everything you can imagine
in Times Square,
to movie stars,
I mean, you know, when I was painting big movie stars,
their heads were as wide as this room.
So I'd paint the hair down to the eyelid, right here,
it was a good place to stop for blending skin.
Then after lunch, I'd paint from the eye
all the way down cheeks
which were multicoloured pastel things,
down to the corner of the lips.
Paint the top lip,
and then next morning finish the job.
You took all that and put it in your art, billboard scale,
colours that shout at you,
images that shout at you,
was there a part of you that actually was in love with that,
that was seduced by it?
No, I thought they were terrible! They were like...
Since I was a kid I listened to,
# Rinse so white rinse so white Happy little wash day song... #
I hated fucking advertising.
I hated it all my life and here I was,
painting gigantic advertisements in Times Square.
So I began to think,
"Can I take fragments of billboard imagery,
"assemble them in a picture plane, that meant nothing."
If you look hard enough, it means nothing.
Are you saying to me
that those wonderful, huge, early works,
are you saying that they are in a sense anti-billboards,
kind of cutting against...?
This enlarged imagery is really empty.
And that's what I wanted to show.
The one pop artist whose work seemed to embrace consumerism
was Andy Warhol.
He took America's most familiar mass-produced objects
and re-presented them as art,
an art of numb repetition
that mimicked the production line.
His critics accused him of selling out,
but they didn't get the true starkness of his message.
There's a common misconception about Andy Warhol,
the idea that he was a mere gimmick-monger,
a trickster on the New York art scene,
a man purely obsessed by celebrity,
status and money.
But it's not true.
was, for my money,
the single most significant American artist
of the second half of the 20th century,
a great philosopher, describer,
a man who really understood
what it was that made
this new, post-war American civilisation
unlike any other civilisation that had preceded it.
In this world there's variety,
but only of a certain kind.
That's the subject of this,
one of his earliest series of pictures
I think it's one of his greatest series of pictures,
the Campbell's soup tins.
We begin with tomato soup,
vegetable soup, green pea soup,
we come all the way through to bean with bacon soup,
cream of chicken soup, turkey noodle,
minestrone Italian style vegetable soup,
new "great as a sauce too"
Cheddar cheese soup.
You can have all this,
but then again everyone else can have all this too.
It's variety, but it's also a trap.
And I love the way that the paintings are laid out,
almost as if they're lining a cell
that you can pace,
but you can't ever escape from.
I think this is Warhol's way of saying,
"This is your world, America.
"This is the prison you've made for yourself."
To help him generate his mass-produced art,
Warhol surrounded himself with a group of free spirits
in The Factory,
his aptly-named Manhattan studio.
It was THE hip hangout for bohemians,
anyone hoping to attain
Warhol's 15 minutes of fame.
So glamorous! Oh!
One of The Factory stalwarts was photographer Billy Name,
who started out as Warhol's lover,
but quickly became the visual chronicler of The Factory scene.
45 years on,
Billy lives in the town of Poughkeepsie
in upstate New York.
These are actually
silkscreen prints of some of my photographs.
Here's Andy on the telephone.
Now what's more important than Andy on the telephone?
In the early years especially,
he was always on the telephone.
You were the original fly on the wall,
I mean, in the sense that you were so ever present
-people just stopped seeing you.
They stopped seeing you, you could just record what was going on.
I just could live there, be there,
and no-one would even pay any attention to me.
And I did know Andy from the time he was a commercial artist,
through the transition period to when he was a celebrated fine artist.
So I went through that whole period with him.
So I've known all the changes, all the Andys and...
All the Andys! I like it!
If you wanted to explain to somebody who'd never heard of Andy Warhol,
you know, who never knew who this guy was,
you know, what would you say the point of those Brillo boxes
and those Del Monte boxes,
you know, remade and presented as works of art?
What was he trying to say,
or what were you all trying to communicate with this?
Well, what we were trying to say was that
you live in art.
You go to the supermarket
and you go down the rows of cans and they're all just
stacks and stacks
of icons on your shelves,
and you're living in art.
And Andy was fascinated with the lucidity of repetition,
the absolute clarity of what you can see
because in a supermarket they really want you to see what's there.
And so we produced
these boxes like the Brillo box
in a numerous occasion so you saw what was there,
and you could not escape the Brillo box
and the reality of it.
I think of him as almost like a mirror,
-I think of his art like a mirror.
It's like, "Look, this is your world, I'm mirroring it to you."
He is, yes.
The older artists considered
the artist as a hero
whereas when Andy came,
he was the artist as a zero.
The previous generation had been,
turn your back on the surface culture,
you don't want to deal with that, it's cheap,
it's shallow, and don't go into that water.
Whereas Warhol would say,
instead of turning our back on it,
let's just turn around, face it, and take it over and manipulate it.
Warhol saw that America treated celebrities
just as it treated products,
as objects replicated for mass consumption.
A single image, screenprinted over and over,
evokes a row of magazine covers,
the frames of a film,
a stack of TV screens.
But Warhol's most powerful work
is his "Death and Disaster" series, begun in 1962.
All are made from actual press photographs.
even death is reproduced
I think what Warhol was driving at
in those pictures was the way in which the big media,
television and the newspapers,
were desensitising Americans by exposing them continually
to horrific images, whether of war, or of car crashes.
Warhol said in relation to the car crash paintings,
"When you see a gruesome image once, it shocks you,
"when you see it again and again and again,
"you stop thinking about it, it stops bothering you".
I think he felt that something
strange and bizarre and unpleasant
was happening to the American psyche,
he felt that Americans were being desensitised.
Perhaps his darkest statement of all
was simply when he said,
"I think in the 1960s,
"Americans forgot what emotions were supposed to be,
"and I don't think they've ever remembered."
Warhol portrayed the car
as just another of America's morbid machines,
mass producing road crash deaths
for tabloid readers to gawk at.
But others saw the car in a far more romantic light.
It was a way to leave behind
the suburbs and the shopping malls...
..and disappear down the endless open road.
As Jack Kerouac wrote,
"Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me,
"as is ever so on the road."
For several generations of American artists,
above all American photographers,
the car on the road,
a mobile studio-cum-darkroom,
a whole series of photographers create
a set of disconcerting,
kaleidoscopically fractured images of America, all seen
from the perspective of the two lane blacktop.
When pictured from a car,
the subtle differences and dissonances of American society
often became more apparent.
The road photographers showed
that within Warhol's mass-produced society,
same shopping mall,
same gas station,
there was still room for the individual.
And that people who seemed rootless,
alienated and unhappy,
still travelled on in search of a better life
Because in one form or another,
the trailblazing spirit
still lived on in America.
PRESIDENT JOHN F KENNEDY: 'We choose to go to the moon
'because that challenge is one we're willing to accept,
'and one we intend to win.'
As the US and Russia raced skywards
to reach the furthest frontiers of space,
ordinary men and women
followed their astronaut heroes
from the comfort of their living rooms.
But for anyone in search of their own frontier,
American history favoured just one direction -
A century after the last pioneers trekked across the continent,
the west was still seen as the direction of progress -
And if you kept going west, you reached Los Angeles.
In the '60s, it was one of the youngest,
fastest-growing cities in America,
home to Walt Disney's first theme park,
and of course, Hollywood.
Here, the car was not only a symbol of freedom,
it was a necessity,
the only way to navigate a city so vast,
so strung out.
I'll never forget the first time I came to LA,
I was very young, it was a very long time ago.
I rented a Buick and I set off
with naive enthusiasm
to find the centre of this great megalopolis.
After about three days of driving and driving
and driving and driving,
the penny suddenly dropped, I realised
this is a city that doesn't HAVE a centre!
What it's got
is a huge sprawl
of districts and neighbourhoods, seemingly the same as each other,
all linked together by a vast spaghetti of a road system.
I have to say I hated the whole experience,
I found it thoroughly alienating.
I just couldn't cope with it.
Now over the years,
I feel I have learned,
actually, to appreciate and enjoy this place,
and I now think of LA as one of the most thrilling, vibrant,
visually exhilarating built environments
ever created by mankind.
But it took something to unlock
that in me, and what that something was,
was the art created by painters who've lived here in LA,
it was looking at how they painted the city,
at how they saw the city,
that taught ME how to enjoy it.
For artists, LA was a place
free of the long, European oriented history of the East coast,
a blank canvas on which to experiment.
The quality of light was different here.
Richard Diebenkorn saw the city's bright planes of colour,
the sky, the sea, the tarmac, and distilled them in paint -
romantic images that borrowed from cubism and expressionism,
to conjure an abstract beauty
from LA's endless samey sprawl.
Wayne Thiebaud's candy-coloured objects of desire
captured the plastic brightness
of LA's must-have pop culture,
a sickly-sweet temptation.
And Ed Ruscha used advertising's flat graphic shorthand
to pick out some of LA's defining images.
Back in '56,
Ed Ruscha had left Oklahoma City
to follow the same route as countless wannabe starlets,
west to LA.
His pop art paintings of the Hollywood sign
seem at first glance to glory in the thrill of Tinseltown,
in this case
a big screen sunset as seen from behind the sign,
up in the Hollywood hills.
It doesn't take long to realise,
in fact pretty much as soon as you get here
you realise you can't actually achieve the point of view
suggested by Ruscha's painting
because he's placed the Hollywood sign
on the summit of a hill that doesn't actually exist,
the sign's on the side.
I think that's part of the joke of the painting,
I think it's an affectionately artificial play
on the artifice that he saw as being central
to this whole culture.
He saw the Hollywood sign as, if you like,
the quintessence of Hollywood itself.
As he said with a mixture of affection and irony,
"This is what Hollywood is,
"a piece of fakery held up on sticks."
LA in the '60s just loved artificiality.
From the unfeasibly tall imported palm trees
to the shape of the buildings, this was a city inventing itself.
Its unique new architecture
was known as Googie.
evoking a stack of jukebox records,
or the speedfins of a Cadillac,
it borrowed from the language of the car,
the space rocket,
the subatomic particle.
This was modernism
for the space age.
I think the only way to really get the crazy beauty of LA
is to drive through the city at night.
When you do that, you realise this whole place...
..is a kind of extraordinary,
vast collective work of art.
And the reason for that, is the fact
that this is a city where everyone is always on the move.
And that's why
the architecture and the signage of LA
has to shout in the way that it does,
because it needs you to stop.
It's saying, "Hey, buddy, come and buy my liquor,
"come and get some gas,
"enjoy the live nude girls, girls girls!"
That's why this is,
more than any other city in the world,
it's the city of the sign.
As the signs and symbols of advertising
crowded in ever closer on American life,
so pop art had mirrored the excesses
of capitalism's increasingly loud,
evangelical gospel -
But a new wave of artists was emerging,
who seemed to reflect a more puritanical side
of the American character.
They were known as the minimalists.
They shared the pop artists' cool disdain for consumer society,
but took a profoundly different approach to it in their art.
What the minimalists hated about pop art
was its apparent celebration of the bright,
gaudy, tacky packaging
in which American consumerism wrapped itself.
Its embrace of the whole ethos
of mass marketing and advertising,
the ethos of buy two get one free, 57 varieties, the hard sell.
The minimalists didn't avert their gaze
from characteristic spaces of American life
but they looked at them with different eyes,
like Andy Warhol with his Campbell soup tin paintings,
they drew inspiration from the supermarket.
And while they purged
and purified it of colour,
packaging, they still retained its strategies and its forms.
Theirs would be an art
made from mute accumulations of objects,
The minimalists reflected the coldness of consumerism,
with the formal coldness of a new,
scarily empty, art.
A gallery full of their work
is like a supermarket where the products can't actually be consumed,
in all their blankness.
Minimalism is a good name
for their vision of what American life had become,
a life dominated by objects without meaning,
without hope of transcendence.
And yet, even in minimalism's rather bleak universe,
there was room, perhaps, for hope,
In 1963, artist Dan Flavin began creating sculptures
using nothing but that ubiquitous modern lighting unit,
the fluorescent tube.
As a gallery for his work, Flavin bought this former Baptist Church
in the town of Bridgehampton, Long Island.
Flavin's astonishing luminous art
is perfectly minimal, in one sense.
He's taken an element of modern life,
common to supermarkets, offices, even seedy motels,
and emptied it of meaning,
used it to create a series of implacable geometric forms.
But why put all this in a deconsecrated church,
and arrange it like a series of chapels?
Though Flavin denied any spiritual aspect to his work,
it's surely significant that he'd studied for the priesthood
before becoming an artist.
Is there a nostalgia here,
a yearning for divine light
to pierce the godless soul of modern life?
Or is he saying that the very idea of religious transcendence,
is nothing more than an illusion,
like a neon sign to be switched on or off?
You can read it either way.
By the late 60's, a succession of shocking clashes with authority
was beginning to unravel the fabric of American society.
Civil rights marchers were beaten by police,
students protesting against the Vietnam War
were gunned down by the National Guard.
Faith in the established order
Until now artists in post war America
had expressed their unease with society
in cool, ironic terms -
pop's hard realism,
or the chilly objectivity of the minimalists.
But now the sheer atrocity of the times
demanded a radical new response.
For years, Philip Guston had painted subtle, tasteful compositions,
like this of 1953.
He was of the old pre-pop, pre-minimalist school,
the abstract expressionists,
rising above the mundanities of modern America
to search for higher truths.
But by the end of the '60s
Guston felt he could no longer keep the world out of his art.
"What kind of man am I", he said,
"reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything,
"and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?"
So he began producing angry, comic-book satires,
a shocking seismic shift
that would change the course of American art itself.
Guston's daughter, Musa Mayer,
has preserved his studio pretty much as it was.
So this is the studio.
It feels to me almost as if he just left here!
The painter's table, still spattered with paint.
-I love it when there's paint on the floor.
-I always think of...
-..we left it.
..it somehow as painter's blood.
There it is, all the effort.
You've left the paints and the brushes neatly arranged...
Yes, and that cabinet is full of old paint.
-Still full of old paint, yes.
But tell me, because what I'm curious to know is,
when he made this great shift, this great change,
this new start, had the first exhibition...
..what was the response, what did everybody in New York think,
you know, when they turned up,
and there it is, the new work?
Well, very negatively, actually.
the critics panned the new work,
they were really shocked.
But when you look at, say, a picture like this,
the Ku Klux Klan,
what's it called this one?
This is called Riding Around.
Riding Around. I mean,
what do you think he was driving at by painting pictures like this?
He had a whole cast of characters, he called them characters.
And they were hooded figures,
and yes, they resembled Klansmen,
but they have a broader meaning, I think, that has to do
with concealment and...
what we reveal, and don't reveal, about ourselves.
Do you think having these hooded figures,
smoking their cigars,
is his way of saying,
"America is a place where people are concealing things,
"concealing the truth from you. It's a place full of bigotry,
-"full of racism, it's a place..."
-It could be.
-I mean look at the blood on the hoods there.
-Oh, yeah, right.
So they're definitely up to no good.
I get the feeling that in a sense, with this late work
it's as if he's almost
popping the boil of his own frustration that's been building up,
it's like he's lancing it, and all this pus is coming out,
-which is sort of...
You brought out this picture.
So this is Nixon, with phlebitis, which he was plagued with,
at San Clemente, which was his retreat on the beach in California.
What do you think it symbolised for your dad, I mean this pussy leg?
-Is it the corrupt administration?
-To me it looks like a map.
Doesn't it look like a map to you? In a way.
I've always thought that this is like the body politic.
Oh, that's a brilliant idea,
so this is America, seeping pus...
Seeping pus and blood,
with the state lines drawn in blood and pus.
That's a brilliant idea, hadn't occurred to me.
So it really is a portrait of America,
and he's got the American flag.
I like to think this is almost a little embedded reference
to Jasper Johns' flag paintings, the flag, but it's the flag melted,
it's somehow gone rotten and there's Nixon, literally,
presented as a dickhead,
with a cock for a nose and two testicles for cheeks.
I mean it's such a sort of vicious, satirical,
-angry picture isn't it?
-Yes, it is.
And I notice that you've placed this wonderful picture...
-pride of place, centre stage.
-I'm guessing that it has a special place in your heart?
-It does, it does.
In a sense it's a self-portrait.
Um...it's a self-portrait of a self-portrait.
The artist, the hooded figure.
Because he acknowledged the... dark side of himself.
He painted the dark side of himself, he had the courage to do that,
which is something not many artists at that time were able to do.
'Guston's disconcerting paintings
'tore up the rule book of American art.
'Until now, movement had followed movement
'in a seemingly inevitable way -
'abstract expressionism, pop, minimalism.
'But after Guston anything was possible.'
Postmodernism was the label critics tried to stick on this new uncertainty,
but all that meant was that, from now on, art can be about anything you want.
It was a reflection of what was happening in American society in the '70s -
the rise of the individual.
Black power, gay rights, women's lib.
The emergence of marginalised, hidden voices.
And art became a means of exploring those newly formed identities,
whether through the street language of graffiti
or the unflinching eye of the camera.
In 1978, a 25-year-old photographer called Nan Goldin
moved from Boston to Manhattan, New York.
She came to the Lower East Side, then an extremely shabby district,
because she was fascinated by its subculture,
a mix of drag queens, heroin addicts and all other kinds of social outsiders.
Nan Goldin photographed herself and the people she knew,
in tenement buildings just like this one.
Her pictures documented intimate moments,
intentionally raw, unaltered, unstaged.
She set out to capture her friends' lives,
often lived in secret, behind closed doors.
And when some of her friends began to die of AIDS
she documented that too.
But these pictures weren't voyeurism -
they were Goldin's chronicle of her own life.
She said, "My camera has saved my life.
"It's made bearable things that feel unbearable."
When I think of Nan Goldin's work,
I can't help thinking back to Jasper Johns' White Flag,
that image of the American flag, almost as a...as a quilt laid down,
smothering the teeming multiplicity of America's many voices and many cultures
and I think her achievement was to...
was almost if you like to... lift a corner of that sheet
and reveal this hidden, secret, quite dark world,
but to do so in a beautifully affectionate and vibrant way.
When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1981,
he repackaged the American Dream.
In an echo of 1950s Levittown,
he believed the US could be made great again through home ownership.
Now not only the marginalised voices would be heard, but the voice too of the little man -
aspirational middle America.
After all, if a B-list Hollywood actor could make it as President,
then anyone could make it, regardless of class, background or taste.
The artist who most perfectly captured that idea was Jeff Koons.
His work transfigured the seemingly vulgar,
the telltale lapse of taste of the nouveau riche.
Most critics were horrified.
Others saw a witty take on eclectic materialism.
I think of Koons as Andy Warhol take two,
but a Warhol who wants to liberate Americans to wallow in their taste,
no matter how kitsch or obscene.
But it's hard to know whether I'm right,
or whether Koons has his tongue firmly in his cheek.
Because if ever an artist was deadpan,
more so even than Warhol, it's Jeff Koons.
-Andrew, how are you?
-I'm very well, it's so nice to see you.
So what are you working on at the moment, paintings or sculptures?
Well, you know, I'm always working on sculptures and paintings together
and I'm working on a series called Antiquity right now,
so I'm just in the process of finishing off some of the first ones.
I know this is a work in progress
but we've got a lot of, as it were, your motifs here,
in the sense of the shiny inflatable, the sexy girl,
this wonderful dolphin, and these again all seem to me
to be playing into...imagery that everybody likes.
So I think you've said to me in the past that you want everyone to feel they can participate in your work,
you don't want to exclude anybody from it.
Well, a piece like this I think an average viewer could look at...
My daughter Scarlet, who's only one year old, was here at the studio three days ago,
and I brought here in here and she's just pointing, "Ah, ah...", you know, and she loved the painting
and she was relating to maybe the childlike quality of the monkey
or just the feminine quality of the painting or the dolphin.
When you're that age, you're open.
I mean, it's just like...
I mean, there's nothing that you're not open to,
I mean, you're open to everything.
And it's the opposite of being closed down, that... "Oh, that's kitsch."
I don't believe in kitsch.
I believe in things that they are as they are
and they're perfect as what they are.
And if lots of people like it, what's wrong with it?
Yes. I see that as... as being generous,
because what you want to do in life is remove anxiety.
And the way you remove anxiety is through acceptance.
My work always has been trying to communicate to people that
it's all right to accept your own history, your cultural history,
the things that you grew up with. I grew up with little knick-knack kind of little ceramic pieces.
My grandparents had it, my parents would have had ceramic lights. That's OK.
The painting that we had above our fireplace,
which was just some commercial painting of some little hut out in a forest,
that's what I looked at every evening. That's OK.
My father and mother made us feel very much as though we were participating in the American Dream,
that we were the middle class, but there was always a sense that we were moving up.
And I was always brought up to be very self-reliant, self-sufficient,
and a lot of it's about this sense of mobility.
Can I ask you about these huge, almost billboard-sized photographs
of you making love to your then wife La Cicciolina?
There was something weirdly pure and innocent about it,
as if you'd taken pornographic imagery and somehow made it sort of innocent.
Were you trying to take that form
and say, well, you needn't be degraded by it, or...
You know, I still find myself puzzling over those pieces.
Yep. What I wanted to do was to make a body of work
that communicated the removal of guilt and shame,
because I'm dealing with cultural guilt and shame.
So I tried to use the body, and the insecurity that people have,
the guilt and shame that they have with their own body,
to again communicate this state of not having guilt and shame.
And that's the highest state that art can take you.
And there's no judgment, there's complete acceptance.
However harshly most of the art establishment judged Koons' work,
it scored a bull's-eye with wealthy bankers and social climbers.
In fact, his work has since commanded
some of the highest prices of any living artist.
Economically, the '90s were a bit of a rollercoaster.
But US confidence was at an all-time high.
The old Soviet enemy had collapsed.
It seemed like the good guys had won - game over.
America sank back into a deep armchair of complacency.
And the quintessential artistic expression of that
appeared, aptly enough, not on a canvas,
but on millions of television screens.
The Simpsons are hardly a model family,
and the programmes exude a corrosive cynicism about the ideals behind the old American Dream.
Take Homer's advice to his children -
"Well, kids, you tried and you failed, the lesson is - never try."
And yet somehow the adventures of this curiously yellow family seem to me to announce a seismic shift
in the story of American art.
The whole show is saturated with cultural references of the broadest possible kind,
guest appearances are made by characters as various as the pop musician Jon Bon Jovi
and the reclusive artist Jasper Johns.
But what the Simpsons says first and foremost is that anything and everything,
from Dunkin' Donuts to the New York Philharmonic
can be considered legitimately part of American culture.
The Simpsons reflected the cultural overload of images streaming through the media and the internet.
It became harder to tell, through this information blizzard, which way America was headed.
And then, on September 11th 2001, the world changed.
The terrorist acts of 9/11 were a murderous outrage,
the public massacre of thousands of innocent people.
And they were also planned
with a hatefully potent sense of visual symbolism,
flying American planes into American skyscrapers,
those towering symbols of ascendancy, optimism,
the free market economy, everything really that America stood for in the 20th century.
And I think it had a shattering effect
on this nation's sense of its place in the world,
I don't think it's any exaggeration to say there was America before 9/11
and there's America after 9/11, and they aren't the same place.
Architect Michael Arad's 9/11 Memorial,
built on the site of the World Trade Center,
is a solemn, heartfelt monument to a great tragedy,
but also an unintentionally startling sign of America's lost confidence.
Two vast pits mark the exact footprints of the Twin Towers,
powerful reminders of the horrifying destruction that was wrought here.
But there's no sense of hope -
none of the old American spirit, determined to survive and overcome any challenge.
Instead, a great wall of tears flows endlessly down, into the deepest pit of oblivion.
And when the light catches these flecks of falling water,
it evokes the most awful 9/11 memory of all -
the image of those who chose to jump to their deaths
before the towers collapsed.
The "War on Terror" and the economic meltdown have created in America, if not a sense of impending doom,
then certainly a national anxiety that surfaces in art.
And if you want to take the temperature of American art today,
there's no better place to come than Brooklyn, home to a hive of younger artists' studios.
In this warehouse, a team of assistants help sculptor Matthew Day Jackson
to produce work that tries to get under the skin of modern America's predicament.
These look like sort of aerial views of cities.
Yeah, they're from a series called August 6th 1945.
-Is that the date of Hiroshima?
They're pretty amazing looking.
Yeah, these are all in a stage before...
before they get, uh, burnt.
-Yeah, they get burnt. I want them to be burnt uniformly,
as if to suggest that there wasn't a detonation,
but just a sort of continuation or an atmosphere of fire.
-Are you going to film?
-Actually, I have,
not to record the act but to create an illusion.
So I'm not interested in the act, but when you look down the side of the painting,
tilt your head to the side, that you can begin to see streets and buildings.
And to see a rush of fire move through the alleyways and streets.
So in a sense it's this idea
that when we invent nuclear energy and when we invent the atom bomb,
we also invent this ability to...
Eradicate all life on planet Earth?
Yeah, but it's also in terms of the sort of mythology of the Cold War,
we believe that it's over, it definitely is a much more comfortable thought
than to think that it's just continued and moved to different places, and...
So you're sort of saying to us, "Hey, did you forget that?"
Oh yeah, totally, I think that we have forgotten.
I'm intrigued by this, I was just thinking that if somebody didn't know your work,
it'd be pretty hard to guess that the man who created these pieces also created these.
Tell me what the skeletons are,
are they based on the oldest ever found human skeleton?
No, there's a range of current to three million years old.
And then from three million years old back to current again,
but in one continuous spectrum, in a rainbow.
So it's a kind of spectrum evolutionary skeleton.
Yeah, if you were to take the toes and tip them right next to each other,
the colour of the toes are one step away from the colour of those toes,
so that essentially it'd create a sort of Mobius loop.
-So I could almost imagine them looping round and round.
-Yep, for ever and ever and ever.
But if I walk it, I'm starting with me, and I move through time...
1.5 million years to...
-and then now you're probably like three...
-Million years ago.
Yeah, and so in terms of thinking about progress.
To move to a point in technology
where we've found this ability to return ourselves to a pre-technological past.
How do you mean? Because we can blow the world up?
Yeah, but it's also in terms of if that technology was ever used in wide scale,
it wouldn't just destroy life,
but also all the tools that we've used in terms of our evolution.
I see, so if I get it right, if I follow the piece, if I follow the spectrum,
if I follow the idea... this small brain, Homo sapiens,
evolved to have such a large brain that he was able to create the possibility
of destruction on such a vast scale that he would return himself back
to a state of primitive man.
I see quite a lot of apocalypse in your imagination, but I do also see it as exultation,
almost kind of maybe a certain kind of laughter in the dark?
-If that's the right phrase?
Or as Ronnie James Dio might say, a rainbow in the dark.
Jackson is one of several artists in America today who seem to exude anxiety through their work,
as they challenge their country's old assumptions about the inevitability of progress,
the idea that all frontiers must lead to a promised land.
In one sense, they're part of a tradition.
For centuries, American artists have played a vital part in shaping the American sense of nationhood.
They've given visual form to America's dreams and ideals,
they've questioned its ideologies,
and above all, they've tried to define just what it is that makes this civilisation unique,
unlike any to have preceded it.
Through it all, there's been this sense that because America was a nation unburdened by history,
it was the home of the new, this was where the future was made.
But I think that's all changed.
I think many Americans fear that they're no longer in charge of their destiny,
that their destiny's being shaped elsewhere.
And that's why so much recent American art seems so hesitant, so uncertain.
It's an art of questions, not of answers.
And at the centre of it lies one particular question -
what does the future hold?
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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In the final part of his United States odyssey, Andrew Graham-Dixon feels the pulse of contemporary America. Beginning in Levittown - the first mass-produced suburb - Andrew uncovers the dark side of post-war consumerism and the role artists have played in challenging the status quo.
He visits New York's Metropolitan Museum to see the most subversive artwork of 1950s America, Jasper Johns's White Flag. Pop art defined the 1960s and Andy Warhol was its greatest artist. Andrew examines Warhol's soup can paintings, meets his former lover Billy Name and interviews one of the last great surviving pop artists, James Rosenquist.
He travels west down the open road, exploring its art, arriving in Los Angeles, an artificial dream world that has inspired the graphic style of Ed Ruscha and the city's own unique contribution to 20th century design - Googie architecture.
Back east, Andrew visits the home of one of his favourite 20th century artists, the late Philip Guston, and gets a private view of his work. He drops into the studio of Jeff Koons to learn how the enfant terrible of contemporary art continues to challenge the boundaries of American taste. Finally, he explores the impact 9/11 has had on America and how a new generation of artists, such as Matthew Day Jackson, have made sense of this tragic event.