Tom Wesselmann, Beyond Pop Art at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal.


[Author’s note: I took a bunch of pictures, but given that the Tom Wesselmann Estate has a large notice stating people publishing pictures will be prosecuted. And that the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal website for the exhibit has humongous (larger than the images) credits that involve Sodrac and a bunch of other organizations where lawyers rake in the cash by sending out cease and desist letters, unless I am discussing a specific piece and need to illustrate a point using Fair Dealing I’m refraining from posting anything because I don’t feel like making any lawyers richer than they already are. If you feel like seeing his art on your screen might I suggest Flickr, Tumblr and Pinterest. On August 13 I got an email from the museum explaining that pictures were in fact allowed because of a special agreement. My mistake.]

I first heard that the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal was going to be exhibiting a retrospective of the work of Tom Wesselmann way back in September 2010. As you can read, at the time, I thought it was a step down for the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal in the art world galaxy. I also had no clue who the heck Tom Wesselmann was at the time (my knowledge of art history, even relatively recent art history outside of Montreal is extremely sketchy). When I told a friend who is infinitely more knowledgeable on things involving international art she poo-pooed him, dismissing him, his art and everything else he ever did in his life with two mono syllabic words.

Given that it wasn’t all that important to me, I pretty much trusted her judgement up until the time I got to see the show. Or in other words, I didn’t do any research prior to going to see the show. As I’ve said numerous times, I’m extremely saddened to see what I can only imagine is a former member of the group Bizot fall so low, so fast. It’s all fine and dandy to tout how the show is a “traveling” show, but when it’s traveling to only the third largest city on Ohio, notorious for charging a local museum with exhibiting obscene photographs when they had an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos, I’m not so certain I would agree wholeheartedly. Then when you realize that the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal acquiesced when the fine folk in Cincinnati said they wanted to disavow any knowledge of it previously being in Montreal, I just cluck my tongue, shake my head and wish really hard that the descent stops, and sometime soon the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal begins it’s rise up the charts of museums in the world again.

(For more on the split, read between the lines where and how it is touring read these here and here and if you wish, email me and I can supply more details.)

[Edit August 14, 2012: To clarify, the show is traveling to Richmond, Virginia and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which I have heard from unimpeachable sources is one of the top 10 museums in the United States, as well as going to Denver, Colorado and San Diego, California. In Cincinnati, the art museum there will be using the catalogue from the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal.

But thankfully, what’s on the walls, and written about in the catalogue has nothing to do with museum politics and is 100% the opposite of what my friend thought. In short it’s a pretty kick-ass show, it’s up until the beginning of October and you really should go see it, honest. Plus for a variety of reasons they are desperate for visitors so they are offering this sweet deal

(between you, me and the screen in between us, I betcha dollars to doughnuts that the sweet deal continues through August as well) So you really have no excuse not to go see it. But as long as you’re sitting on your duff reading what I have written, I have some more things to say.

The first question I had, and still continue to have is why isn’t Tom Wesslemann a better known artist? While an awful lot of the quote Pop Art unquote movement didn’t age terribly well – Peter Max. Anyone? – an awful lot of it actually has not only aged well, but become more than significant and important. If Mr. Wesslemann was worthy of a significant and important retrospective at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal shouldn’t he previously be know as a significant and important artist? Well, every time I asked someone who knew more about art than I did, I got a bunch of bafflegab and gobbledy-gook. Anything from “he was independent,” and “the feminists beat him up” to “he wasn’t exactly the most diplomatic of people” or [insert your choice here]. None of them really held (or hold) any water but despite that I get the sinking suspicion that he is going to go down like so many other artists as a footnote in history. It ain’t like the Met, the Louvre, the Hermitage and the Prado are beating down the doors wanting to exhibit his stuff. I figure at some point I will either find an answer or Mr. Wesselmann’s work, despite how good it is will fade into the background of my memory, like so many other artists.

In the really pretty, but badly bound catalogue (the binding on mine split after one reading) Stéphane Aquin, one of the co-curators, writes things like The success of Wesselmann’s early works would eclipse the brilliance of those that were to come, and the Pop label associated with them would distract critics from the real aesthetic challenges with which he grappled. He goes on to hypothesize that the conservative climate in the United States of America during the 1980s might be to blame for the lack of recognition or going out on a limb he postulates that the lack of fame might be due to his not being a party-animal. More likely it is some combination of all of them along with a bunch of other stuff that I can’t even begin to contemplate. Although it occurred to me, since the museum showed the film on Henry Geldzahler, Who Gets to Call It Art? that perhaps there was some kind of falling out between the two of them as Mr. Wesselmann was not included in Mr. Geldzahler’s highly influential exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970 and the Met doesn’t have a single painting or sculpture. (Then after re-reading Constance Glenn’s essay in the “really pretty, but badly bound catalogue” I realized that she probably put that thought in my head, although with just a little bit more poking around, you can discover that Mr. Geldzahler was head of the Visual Arts department of the NEA from 1966 to 1969, just at the time when all the other Pop Artists’ careers were exploding, while Wesslemann’s appears to have plateaued).

While it is possible to get “famous” on one’s own, for the most part it really really helps to have someone else championing you and your art (or whatever other discipline you want to get famous in) and from my cursory and limited knowledge of New York art and artists in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s Mr. Geldzahler was the go to guy when you needed a champion. But enough about me hypothesizing about stuff I don’t know. What about the Art?

Ostensibly a complete retrospective, it somehow misses, avoids and otherwise glosses over the fact that Mr. Wesselmann was a cartoonist before he became a painter. Given that the previous fancy and big exhibit at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal on Lyonel Feininger included the early cartooning work, I can only guess at the reasoning behind the omission. However, it’s a minor complaint, as I wrote above, it is a glorious show. For those of you who aren’t aware, when speaking I tend to start my sentences “No, but…” So even if I do say something negative, remember, this is a really good, if not great show, despite its faults. The show itself is grouped into six sections (seven if you include the music, I’ll get to that later) titled, Early Collages; American Beauty; Still Lifes; Form, Focus, Scale; Lines Made Object; and The Final Years. I would presume roughly chronological, I did not study the tags too, too closely.

I’m not going to get much into his history, or biography, there is more than enough of that sort of stuff available elsewhere on sites such as wikipedia, The Tom Wesslemann website, Haunch of Venison and the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal. Suffice it to say born in Cincinnati, moved to NYC, became artist, married, had kids, made art, died. As for the art theory stuff, I’ll leave that up to the big guns with the multiple diplomas as well. The quick and dirty version would be: adored De Kooning, studied real hard, figured he couldn’t do abstract as well as De Kooning, so did figurative. Using modern techniques tried (and lots say succeeded) in doing modern old masters (ie still lifes and nudes). Over time his work got larger and larger. In the 1980s discovered the technology for laser cutting steel and became a sculptor while still calling himself a drawer and making art completely and utterly different from what he did previously. Ultimately returning to painting, but in a much more abstract form while still retaining a figurative nature, before his death.

There are (if my memory serves) six or seven rooms, one almost three times the size of the others. In the first room there are a bunch of his tiny collages mounted behind acrylic masquerading as bulletproof glass. Despite the excessive security, they are utterly charming. In the second part of the room are a selection of his nudes, including one large scale preparatory drawing for one of them. Given that the museum had the “full support of the Estate of Tom Wesselmann, New York” there are a bunch of these drawings and maquettes for a wide variety of the paintings and sculptures. Unfortunately they are all ghettoized in a separate section for the most part making it extremely difficult to compare the preparation to the finished product.

One thing I discovered, was that while the nudes at the museum are extremely tame, even for Cincinnati moral standards, if you scroll through Flickr, Tumblr and Pinterest there are a bunch of nudes he made, not in the exhibit, that are slightly, if not much more explicit, and not only could be considered NSFW in Cincy, Virginia, Denver, San Diego and beyond, but also by their exclusion from the show here end up giving a certain amount of credence and credibility to the quote feminist theories unquote that apparently were the major reason why Mr. Wesselmann failed to be as well known in the art galaxy as his other contemporaries. It would have been nice to see the gamut of the nudes so that you could judge for yourself whether knee-jerk feminist criticism held water against the paintings or not, instead of just being told that the criticism doesn’t hold water.

Personally, given the lack of wall space and the lack of controversy, I wasn’t all that impressed with the nudes. I can definitely launch into all sorts of conspiracy theories right about here, but how about I don’t, and instead point out that the second room, filled with still lifes, not only left me slack jawed, but knocked my socks off, left me gasping for air and pretty much set the tone for the rest of the show. All of it is Big Art. And as I have said before, and will say again, big art (especially in a museum) is pretty much guaranteed to be great art. Obviously there are going to be some exceptions to the rule. But when you have the space to present it, the time to explain it, and the budget to do so with a flourish, I don’t think you’re going to get many complaints, nor is it likely that those complaints that do get heard will be given any weight.

I had heard of (and probably seen) some of Robert Rauschenberg‘s combines so I wasn’t shocked that Wesselmann had incorporated televisions, sinks and refrigerators into his paintings. But the way he did it was, unlike the Combines not done in an abstract manner, but completely figuratively. If I were writing some PhD thesis, this would be the place to go off on some 2,000 word aside about how his collages and the combines led to the still lifes, but I’m not so consider yourself saved. My complaint (small, tiny and insignificant, remember this still is an awesome show) is that on the tags, each and every one said “working” whatever – however none of them were working in the museum. Along the lines of a “look, don’t touch” or “trust me on this one” line. It would have been nice to see the light on, or the TV showing the Honeymooners or something along those lines instead of just once again having to take the museum’s word that in fact the antiques were still in working order (when you buy something off of Craigslist or Ebay, do you trust the seller or do you make sure for yourself that everything is in working order?)

Then we get into the space where I start losing track of the number of rooms, and exactly what’s happening, as I just end up trying to concentrate while consistently picking my jaw up off the floor. At this point in his career Mr. Wesselmann has completely bought into the idea of “Go Big or Go Home.” While the previous stuff was large in size, the stuff in these rooms is larger still, and it’s kind of easy, in retrospect to see how he got into sculpture (even though he called it drawing). At this point everything has a very nice gloss on it, there are a bunch of lips, cigarettes, cars, Ray Ban sunglasses (so what are the odds that the producers of Risky Business saw Still Life No. 60? And did John Pasche influence Tom Wesselmann or was it the other way around? Or were they both unaware of each other?) and other paraphernalia representing the luxury life.

Installation view of the Steel Drawing/Really Shiny Floor room in Tom Wesselmann, Beyond Pop at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal.
Installation view of the Steel Drawing/Really Shiny Floor room in Tom Wesselmann, Beyond Pop at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal.

The next room is what I’m calling the Steel Drawing/Really Shiny Floor room, and yes, the steel drawings are everything they’re cracked up to be and then some. I don’t know whose idea it was to slap down some seriously reflective floor tiles, but they should be given a raise and whoever it was who said “no you can’t do that in the rest of the show.” Should be demoted to mopping the floor of the Really Shiny Floor room for the duration on the exhibition. The steel drawings play on so many senses, concepts and ideas to begin with – especially the whole thing about how do you handle negative space – that in effect doubling it by making the floor shiny is absolutely brilliant. In my standard issue curmudgeon state, I only ask not only why they didn’t do it for the rest of the show, but in this particular room why they didn’t do it on the walls and ceiling as well.

Then (I think, I’m going to have to go back for a fifth time and write down some stuff instead of just taking it all in by osmosis) we get to the room I love and hate. The museum, for whatever reasons (personally I think it has to do with the need for cash) has decided that any Fine Arts (notice the capital F and the capital A) exhibit not only needs, but requires a musical component. To that end the powers that be have decided to stick a whole bunch of Mr. Wesslemann’s musical noodlings on an endless loop that blares at about 55db as you attempt to look at his sketches and maquettes. Nothing personal, but if Mr. Wesselmann had been even a halfway almost decent composer he would have gotten his due long ago – especially since he apparently (I stuck my fingers in my ears) only wrote country music – after all it ain’t like “A Boy Named Sue,”

or “Okie from Muskogee,”

or “They Ain’t Makin Jews Like Jesus Anymore”

are on a par with either Shakespeare or Moliere. But they are all great country tunes, and head, hands and shoulders better then anything Mr. Wesselman wrote, Brokeback Mountain soundtrack or not (and apparently according to this Wikipedia article the song “I Love Doing Texas with You” sung by Kevin Trainor didn’t even make it into the final cut of the film). I have gone off elsewhere about how the last darn thing the the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts should be doing is music, and I will continue to rail against this dictatorially enforced synesthesia until I either go hoarse or someone else shows up with more money and is able to show the Board of Directors the error of their ways. – Rant, off.

The last room is actually the penultimate room (as the MBAM always makes sure to end an exhibit in a sales annex) and while Mr. Wesselmann’s later works are good and still carry some oomph, I kind of felt that the great stuff had been in the middle. Not to slight his later works, after all it’s really nice reading how he was finally able to reconcile his love of De Kooning and Matisse before he died (I’m probably simplifying things too much) and it ain’t like they’re bad paintings. But like his much earlier collages they only suffer in comparison to his other work.

As per normal, I’ve kind of foamed at the mouth here. The show is more than worth the $15 the museum ostensibly wants to charge, it’s a bargoon at $7.50 which is what they are effectively charging, and I’m 100% certain that if you got as creative as Slim Stealingworth you could actually get the museum to pay you to go see it. In passing, why hasn’t anyone noticed the level of emotional insecurity in Mr. Wesselmann’s pseudonym? In reading the catalogue for the show, I must’ve gone over 10,000 dense words about his art, maybe 20,000, I didn’t count. But while each and every author quoted “Slim Stealingworth,” not a single author transliterated the name which means Not worth an awful lot of money if you steal it. And since Slim Stealingworth was the pseudonym for Mr. Wesselmann personally I venture a guess that the main reason why Mr. Wesselmann’s art isn’t better known is because of his, you want to call it insecurity, his reticence, his shyness, whatever – but if he chose to hide behind a facade that emphasized the lack of value in hos work, it probably ends up in a self serving result, which is unfortunate, because despite whatever he thought about his art and whatever I think about how the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal exhibits it, the stuff he made really is kick-ass.