Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tom Wesselmann at the Musée des Beaux-Arts

Yesterday I visited the Tom Wesselmann show at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which runs until October 7, 2012.  This is the first major retrospective of his work in North America, and long overdue. He was the only one of the major figures associated with the Pop Art movement - Jim Dine, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol - not to have been honoured in this way.
Still Life with Two Matisses (Portrait) 1990/92

Early in his career, Wesselmann decided that he had been so influenced by Willem de Kooning that, in order to ensure that his own work was original, he would turn away from abstraction and limit himself to the figurative. His career was almost entirely an exploration of the great themes of art: the nude, the still life, and the landscape.
Great American Nude #52, 1963

In 1961, he began his Great American Nude series. The influence of Matisse is palpable. To quote the artist, "I liked the idea of competition rather than harmony. All parts of the picture compete." These large acrylics included collage and, occasionally, textiles. The collage above was photographed at an angle to avoid glare. The white rug on which the figure lies is fuzzy cloth.
 Still Life #20, 1962

His still lifes featured collage and assemblage. He would obtain advertising materials directly from manufacturers in order to include them in his work. Both his paintings and collages often used American symbolism (stars, flags, presidential portraits) and icons of post-war consumerism.
Still LIfe #60, 1973
By the 1970's, he was using "shaped canvases", innovative in its time.
Alice's Front Yard (3D), 1993

In the 1980's, he invented "Steel Drawings". As noted in the exhibition, "Wesselmann's original idea, that began the cut-out works, was to preserve the process and immediacy of his drawings from life, complete with the false lines and errors, and realize them in steel. It was as though the lines had just been miraculously drawn in steel." He pioneered the use of laser-cutting to achieve this work in metal.

Wesselmann insisted that these were not sculptures, but drawings, because of their essentially linear quality. Sometimes, charcoal was applied to the metal to add coloration. At other times, oil or alkyd paint was used.
Monica in robe with Wesselmann, 1992

Wesselmann died in 2004 at the age of 73. In his last years, he began to take the painted remnants from his metal cut-outs and assemble them into non-figurative compositions, returning to abstraction, his first love, on his own terms. He had come full circle.

Wesselmann kept a well-organized inventory of the many preparatory drawings done for each piece, and seeing them allows the viewer to better appreciate the meticulous approach he took to his work. I enjoyed seeing how the artist consistently explored the great themes throughout his career, evolving different material expressions through the decades. 

1 comment:

Dianne Robinson said...

Nice write up. I liked his steel drawings too.