VMFA Premieres PopArt by Tom Wesselmann
Tom Wesselmann’s art is massive, both in scope and message. Beyond Pop: Tom Wesselmann, which opens this Friday at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, includes pieces spanning Wesselmann’s career; from abstract nudes, to steel sculpture. This retrospective is a first for Wesselmann here in America, a feat the often underrated artist has long deserved.
“For me, he was always one of the big figures, and I couldn’t understand why he didn’t have more personal recognition in this country – particularly because hes always featured in pop-art histories alongside Lichtenstein and other pop art figures.” said one of the exhibits curators, Marco Livingstone.
This lack of recognition lead Wesslemann to being clumped in with other pop artists. The audacious Slim Stealingworth wrote in 1980 “Many critics have described Tom Wesselmann as the most underrated painter of the American Art world of the 1960′s.” But in reality, Slim Stealingworth was Tom Wesselmann. Frustrated by being ignored by the established art world, Wesselmann wrote a book about himself.
Most serious art historians have limited their appreciation of Wesselmann to his important role in the Pop Art movement but ignoring the full extent of his career, but The VMFA hopes to change that. According to John B. Ravenal, the VMFA’s curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, it’s the ability to see this time-spanning collection that makes the exhibit so unique. “The north American audience has only ever seen bits and pieces… that only have to do with a particular body of work… and if you’re not able to see all those shows, you’re missing bits and pieces… You haven’t been able to see it all together until now.” Ravenal went on to say this show gives audiences a chance to see the many different phases of Wesslemann’s work, beyond the pop art he was famous for. “… (Wesselmann) went many different directions with many different innovations.”
The exhibit starts with early collage work, moving through the famous Pop Art nudes and the Smokers series, his “steel drawings” from the 80′s and finally his return to painting and abstraction in his last period before his death. When seen in its totality, Wesselmann’s works paint a picture of an American master.
The exhibit is part of a continued relationship between the VMFA and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which last collaborated together on the Tiffany Glass exhibit. MMFA Director and Chief Curator Nathalie Bondil was at the opening event and continued the praises of Wesslemann’s work. “When you see how coherent (and) intelligent his whole work is… he is a true great American artist,” said Bondil.
Bondil was very interested in helping to develop this show because their hadn’t been a retrospective of Wesslemann’s work since his death in 2004. Bondil also spoke Wesslemann’s mastery “Its a true surprise, a great discovery, and source of pride for the American arts.”
Additionally, Bondil helped assemble the large format print collection which accompanies the exhibit. In the book, she talks about Wesslemann’s ability to continue to get shocks with his work, and how this showing is no exception. “In this retrospective, why not include a painting of a gigantic erect penis, or a gleaming female nude in molded Plexiglas? This omnipresence of sex – a joyfully embraced hedonism, “a fresh, erotic simplicity,: an exultant hymn to life and love, devoid of hypocrisy – confounds puritanical and feminist critique, routs it. Wesselmann is the only great figure of the Pop generation not to have had a retrospective in the United States.”
Wesslemann’s work, as stated before, is massive. Some of the installations span 10-20 feet. There are smaller sketches and paintings, but also larger painted steel cut-outs and mixed media presentations. He used bright reds, oranges, blues, and other colors that make the pieces stand out against the VMFA’s soft lighting backdrop.
Though he played down direct connections to being pop or commercial art, many of his pieces barrow from other images and re-present them in abstract settings that are reminiscent of many of his pop art contemporaries. These recognizable pieces, from pictures of past presidents, to oversized soda bottles, reinforce Wesslemann’s title as a stand out in the pop art scene.
His collection of “Sunset Nudes,” some of his last work, us abstract forms while maintaining relatively recognizable imagery. You wont be asking yourself what you are looking at, but rather wondering what subtle differences Wesslemann made to make you so curious in the first place.
Pop Art and Beyond: Tom Wesselmann open April 6th and continues until July 28th.
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