The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts truly pops with colour this summer – their newest temporary exhibition, Beyond Pop: Tom Wesselmann, is a gorgeous retrospective that joyfully takes us through a lifetime of work by the American artist, a contemporary of Warhol and Lichtenstein but with an artistic outlook and process all his own.
While Tom Wesselman is considered part of the Pop Art movement, which began in the mid-1950s as artists merged images from advertising, the media and other forms of popular culture into their work, he looked to traditional painting forms, such as still life and nudes, to take his own work further into the avant-garde. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ exhibition – the first major Wesselmann exhibition in Canada, with 75 works on display – is a celebration about the artist’s own discoveries, as he was as much an inventor as he was a painter, ever-searching for different ways to express form, light and perspective.
The exhibition begins in the late-50s with smaller collage work from Wesselmann’s post-art-school years, a foreshadowing of what’s to come in his large-scale figurative paintings, a merging of modernized still life, his inquisitive take on classic nudes, and bits and pieces of everyday consumer life: family photos, liquor bottles, the American flag. From there, we follow Wesselmann’s continually questioning trajectory, as he examines art history (and his place in it) through his own art, the purpose and wonder of art itself, and how and why artists seek to capture life’s fleeting moments.
All of this is not without a sense of humour either. Wesselmann was one of the most dedicated, hard-working artists of his era, yet a sense of play comes out in his work: contemplating the serious problems of art, artistic practice and the popular culture he found himself living in – and turning that into art – was thrilling and life-affirming in itself.
That not only art, not only everyday life but the intersection of the two inspired Wesselmann becomes even clearer as we see behind the scenes of his finished pieces, in sketches, renderings, drawings, surprisingly praising letters from companies whose products featured in his work, and even in hearing the country music he wrote and listened to (“Country’s underlying sadness makes me very happy,” he said).
His paintings became more sculptural in form – the door of a fridge, a television, a fan installed directly into paintings and two-dimensional paintings cut along their enlarged objects’ forms – sunglasses, a woman’s legs. Soon after, Wesselmann began to explore and invent techniques that were both painting and sculpture at the same time, such as his steel drawings and paintings, beautiful, time-consuming pieces of painted metal that match the artist’s organic brush strokes.
Wesselmann worked right up until the end of his life, turning somewhat from figurative work to the abstract (and 3-D), yet still fascinated by the same themes of how to capture a moment in time or a passing gesture, and always with an eye on classic works from Matisse, Picasso, Mondrian and others. In this, Wesselmann’s art is both very much of its time, from decade to changing decade, counting the popular pulse of the years, and still timeless in its intelligent, appreciative beauty.
In addition to the Beyond Pop exhibition, a series of films related to Wesselmann’s work and pop art play during June and July for free at the Maxwell Cummings Auditorium. See Elia Kazan’s The Arrangement, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, Will Zens’ The Road to Nashville, Painters Painting: The New York Art Scene 1940-1970 and Who Gets to Call It Art – check the MMFA website for showtimes.