Interesting thing about art—it endows its creator with a sort of immortality, keeping the artist alive long after he’s shuffled off his clay coil. Nothing illustrates this better than a retrospective exhibit that traces the timeline of an artist’s career with the visual narrative jumping out at you and the artist from beyond the grave shouting his discoveries as they occur. That’s certainly the case with the latest installation at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts called “Pop Art and Beyond: Tom Wesselmann.”
Art is all about vision. And all too often art scholars miss the forest for the trees. They apply a narrow vision, scrutinizing one facet of an artist’s work, which is akin to looking into a star-creamy sky and focusing all your attention on a single star through the porthole of a telescope. Or eyeing, through the lens of a microscope, a single amoeba in a drop of pond water and not seeing the robust and diverse life that bustles and quivers just beyond it.
The exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is not in the least telescopic. Rather, it’s true to real human vision, which is binocular and peripheral.
At a media preview before the show opened a number of the people who made this retrospective a reality spoke in one of the vast marble halls of the Virginia Museum’s newest wing.
“The point of the exhibition is to finally give the public in the United States and in Canada a chance to see the whole scope of Wesselmann’s career,” said VMFA’s John Ravenal, the coordinating curator of this show. “There had been retrospective’s of Wesselmann in Japan and Europe as well but there never had been one in North America so this is the first and what it means is that the North American audience has always just seen bits and pieces. They have seen exhibitions at galleries or museums that just have to do with one particular to body of work and it’s hard to hold something in your mind for several years and piece it together as if that were the whole career and if you’re not able to see all those shows then you’re missing big pieces.”
While Americans, by and large, are aware that Wesselmann was one of a handful of pre-eminent Pop artists alongside the likes of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist, many don’t have a clue about the breadth and depth of his work as a visual artist.
“The Pop Art was really just one phase,” Ravenal said. “And then there was a substantial career that built on that but went in many different directions with many innovations.”
Ravenal himself was unaware of the scope of Wesselmann’s life work. “In some ways I am the perfect audience for this retrospective because I valued the early work and even though I knew the middle career and the late career somewhat I didn’t really have a strong sense of it and I think, like many curators, I felt that the most important work was the Pop work,” he said. “So this exhibition for me personally has been a really wonderful opportunity to become more familiar with the entire career and to really gain a great appreciation for the middle and late work as well.”
This exhibition was initially put together by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and will make two other stops stateside after it leaves the Virginia Museum in late July. But the driving force behind the exhibit was Wesselmann’s wife Claire.
After the press crowd left for the gallery downstairs I talked for a time with Claire Wesselmann, a slight woman with Chesapeake Bay-green eyes and a braided pony tail.
“In the beginning he was a friend,” Claire said. They both studied art at Cooper Union in New York and in the early years Tom Wesselmann wasn’t exactly sure what direction his art would lead him. “He could draw and he has a great sense of humor growing up in Cincinnati and he thought maybe he should draw cartoons or something” said Claire. Within a year after starting a Cooper Union, Tom fell in love with painting and left everything, except his sense of humor, behind. He also got a degree in teaching and later taught math and art, but every evening as soon as he got home he would retreat to his studio and work with his brushes on canvas. “He’d work his tail off night after night,” Claire remembered. “He loved to work.”
But not to the exclusion of all else.
“He wanted to work all the time,” Claire told me. “But then when we had children he said, ‘I want to go home to have dinner with the family.’ And he did that every evening.”
From a very early point in his career Tom decided he was going to paint three things. He told his wife this: “I’m going to do the nude, the still life and the landscape.” Tom was true to his word, but the way he painted these things was utterly fresh and defied existing conventions. Yet at the same time he remained, on some levels, true to classical forms. His work resonates with influences from Titian, Goya, Manet and, most notably, Matisse—artists who informed him but did not control him.
These days Claire spends a fair amount of time in her husband’s studio, now hers, just a few short blocks from her home. The studio looks out on Cooper Union where their union as man and wife began.
“After Tom died I just swore that I was going to get a retrospective,” Claire recalled. “I kept telling people he hasn’t had this, but he should have it. I told this to people that not only liked his work but had a lot of influence and they began putting the word out.”
I make my way down to the 12,000 square foot special exhibition galleries, a perfect venue for Wesselmann’s works, so many of which are gargantuan. I moved freely through his life beginning with abstract collages, some of them almost box like, calling to mind Joseph Cornell. Then the Great American Nudes and Pop Art in all its commercial variety. What gets you is how he manipulated every kind of medium to achieve different effects. He molded bas-reliefs of plastic and laser-cut steel to create three-dimensional paintings. He obsessed, it seems, about lips, sensuous ones, lipstick-clad, brilliantly red in contrast to the lead white teeth between them. And also cigarettes, some of them big as Philip Morris. They look seductive and deadly—ash, a curl of smoke, cork tip, glowing ember.
There was one piece though that stopped me in my tracks. It’s a simple still life of a room, presumably a kitchen, a chair parked at a table that looks out on an open window, you can tell that because the cord of the shade is moving. On that table are a few simple items—three oranges, a plate with two slabs of steak fresh off the grill, and a green bottle of Ballantine Ale next to a pilsner glass beer-filled and sporting a lush white head. It’s an interior space looking out on the world; almost the opposite of an Edward Hopper. I looked at this painting for a full ten minutes and then noticed someone watching me, a security guard named Scotta Barsella. She lives in Ginter Park and loves her work because she can be immersed in art all day long. She told me that. But then she said this about the painting we were admiring: “That’s where I want to be right now. I want to be right there.”