Review by Elisa Badii
‘Tom Wesselmann: Beyond Pop Art’ is the first retrospective of the work of the painter in North America. This rich exhibition, curated by Stéphane Aquin and Marco Livingstone, features a very well-thought-out collection of paintings, collages, sculptures, drawings and abounding archival materials, some never seen before, that pays tribute to an artist who ranks among the most complex and radical figures of the post-war era.
Wesselmann shaped the aesthetic of Pop Art, along with Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol and, throughout his practice, connected the past and the future of art history. Heir to the Classicism of Matisse, Modigliani and Picasso’but open to the influence of movements such as Neo-Dada, Fluxus and Body Art’he extended the vision of the masters into the contemporary American milieu. The exhibition follows the development of Wesselmann’s oeuvre from his early collages, inspired by Schwitters and Matisse (such as ‘Still Life No. 31, 34, or 35’ from 1963), and continues with some of the most significant monumental pieces. ‘Still Life No. 60’ (1973), a composition of larger-than-life objects’necklace, sunglasses, lipstick, key, and ring’really stands out for its theatrical presence, directly communicating the artist’s vision.
In the 1970s Wesselmann gradually started to incorporate advertising materials and 3-D objects into his work’refrigerator doors, TV sets, as well as reproductions of paintings. ‘Bathtub Collage No. 2’ (1963) is one of the most surprising of these works, with its perfect balance of reality and illusion. The combination of elements (such as an actual curtain, a toilette and a towel) with the collage of a lady in the bathtub remains a bold artistic statement.
Wesselmann re-defined the traditional genres of the nude, still life and landscape, overcoming classical iconography to propose a psychologically and sensually charged imagery. He was a master of composition and colour: he consistently sought out emotional strength in the form of the composition. ‘I view art as an aggressive activity [’] the nude is a good way to be aggressive, figuratively. I want to stir up intensive, explosive reactions in the viewers.’
With the same fresh, erotic and allusive approach, Wesselmann began experimenting with Steel Drawings’laser-cut metal works painted with soft enamel colours’developing a new technology that allowed him to transform sketches into 3-D objects. ‘Standing Nude No. 7’ (1985), or ‘Monica Sitting with Mondrian No. 4’ (1988) are stunning examples of this practice. It is as if the contours of the drawings were cut off and hung on a wall. They surprisingly combine the steadiness of the steel and the delicacy of the lines that describe a naked female body.
‘Tom Wesselmann: Beyond Pop Art’ is a historically meaningful retrospective that will re-connect the public to an artist whose work has been wrongly overlooked by the critics. It succeeds with a selection of key pieces to highlight Wesselmann’s method and contribution. The effect of this visual experience is definitely intense; the viewer is taken by hand on a journey that spans the entire career of a groundbreaking, consistent, free mind.