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Images courtesy VMFA
Blue Dance, 1996, oil on cut-out aluminum
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Great American Nude #21, 1961, mixed media and collage
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Still Life #35, 1963, oil and collage on canvas
Claire Wesselmann made a promise to herself after her husband died in 2004 that the full scope of his artwork would be exhibited. That promise first came to fruition last year with an exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
On Thursday, she was at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which is set to open “Pop Art and Beyond: Tom Wesselmann” to the public on Saturday, after a member preview today. The VMFA is only the second place in North America (and first in the United States) to present a retrospective of his work.
During a media preview of the exhibit, Claire Wesselmann announced that she will give one of her husband’s cut-metal drawings, Barn Behind Beechwoods, to the VMFA — it’s not in the current show, but will arrive later. She described it as depicting a place where Tom Wesselmann parked by the side of the road to draw a red barn. The 1990 piece is enamel on cut-out aluminum, 38 by 98 inches.
“Tom did a lot of thinking by drawing,” she says later, as guests wander through the nine galleries where his work is displayed. “He began thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could draw something this size [holding her hands a few inches apart] and have it enlarged to be very big and have it look just like it.’ ”
The technology to do what he had in mind hadn’t been developed, but he found a way to transfer the drawings to a computer, and then have them laser-cut into metal and paint them in his studio. “Is it a drawing or is it a painting?” Claire Wesselmann says. “It meant that these pieces are integrated with the wall, just like a drawing on a piece of paper. Nothing frames it.”
Tom Wesselmann is best known for his 1960s-era work labeled Pop Art, which came into use around 1962, when his work was part of a “New Realists” exhibition in New York with artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist. But his art evolved and went in different directions, from his early collages to the drawings, seascapes, nudes, and later cut-metal pieces.
According to information in the exhibit, Wesselmann resisted the Pop Art label, saying it caused viewers to “focus excessively on subject matter and assumed sociological commentary” and obscured his emphasis on formal and technical innovation. “He wasn’t always recognized for the innovator that he was,” says John Ravenal, VMFA coordinating curator and Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. “The point of the exhibit is to finally give the public … an opportunity to see the whole scope of Wesselmann’s career."
Ravenal notes that Wesselmann retrospectives had been shown in Japan and Europe, but not in North America until the Montreal exhibit. The VMFA show includes about 150 works, ranging from small drawings and maquettes to wall-size installations. “It struck us as something that needed to be done,” says Stéphane Aquin, one of the originating curators from the Montreal museum, who was at the VMFA for yesterday’s preview.
Art historian Marco Livingstone, who worked on the Montreal exhibit and wrote the book Pop Art: A Continuing History, says he can’t quite explain why Wesselmann’s name isn’t better known. “For me, he was always one the principal figures,” Livingstone says. He notes that London’s Tate Modern museum is currently showing a Lichtenstein exhibit. Contrasting the two, he adds, “Lichtenstein found his language in the ‘60s and stayed with it.” Wesselmann, meanwhile, found his subject matter early — the nude, the still life and the landscape — but every five to six years, there was a dramatic change in his approach to that subject matter, Livingstone says. And perhaps because Wesselmann’s work is so colorful and user friendly, people didn’t recognize the seriousness of the intent, he adds. “He’s a very reflective, very intellectual artist.”