I love Pop Art, especially its incarnations in the 1960s and ’70s in the work of Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg and Wayne Thiebaud. And I’ve been anxiously awaiting details from the Phoenix Art Museum regarding the “Andy Warhol: Portraits” show, slated to open in March 2015.
So you can understand why — during a recent vacation to my hometown of Denver — I spent almost two hours in the way-cool Denver Art Museum viewing just one show: “Beyond Pop Art: A Tom Wesselmann Retrospective.” I wove my way through a series of rooms dedicated to the several phases of Wesselmann’s illustrious career, including the “Great American Nudes,” the “Seascapes,” the shaped canvases, the “Steel Drawings” and the “Smoker Series” — all of it opening my eyes to the lush colors, massive scale, funky materials, familiar iconography and other characteristics that make Pop Art a veritable trip through Candyland. Also wonderful to see was how Wesselmann (1931-2004) moved beyond Pop Art later in his career to explore abstraction and figurative painting.
The show has an undeniably large scope — about 100 works — including preliminary drawings, maquettes, documents and other materials lending insight into Wesselmann’s creative process. Here are a few highlights, somewhat in the order I viewed them:
— “Great American Nude #53” (1964), with its almost sensationalistic choices on which parts of the female body to accent and how to let colors convey a decidedly American feel.
— “Still Life #35” (1963, oil and collage), which lets Wesselmann burst out of intimately scaled paintings into monumental, billboard-like works, with this piece measuring about 15 feet across and embracing the ubiquitousness of sliced white bread, Royal Crown cola, cigarettes and jetliners.
— “Still Life #60” (1973), which made me feel Lilliputian as I walked along the 25-foot-long assembly of giant painted cut-outs — a tube of lipstick, a ring with a blue stone, a matchbook, a string of red beads, sunglasses and nail polish. The artist challenges you to figure out their relationship.
— “Smoker #8” (1973), another instance in which the work’s elements, colors and massive size take art-making into another realm. I was captivated by the way Wesselmann captures the glowing red tip of a lit cigarette and the movement of smoke. Personal feelings about smoking seem irrelevant.
— “Still Life with Liz” (1992), a well-known example of Wesselmann’s exploration of “steel drawings,” in which steel is cut into strips, bent, twisted and painted to form the composition, which juts out from the wall. It also illustrates how the artist often referenced other classical and contemporary artists, in this case, Warhol.
Fellow Pop Art aficionados, you have until September 14, 2014, to drop by the Denver Art Museum; find details at http://www.denverartmuseum.org/exhibitions/beyond-pop-art-tom-wesselmann-retrospective. Meanwhile, enjoy these images provided by the museum:
Tom Wesselmann (American, b.1931, d.2004), Still Life With Liz, 1992. Alkyd oil on cut-out steel; 72 x 69 in. Lent by Claire Wesselmann. © Estate of Tom Wesselmann/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, Photo Credit: Jeffrey Sturges.
Tom Wesselmann (American, b.1931, d.2004), Seascape #22, 1967. Oil on shaped canvas; 90 3/4 x 59 1/4 in. Lent by Claire Wesselmann. © Estate of Tom Wesselmann/ Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, Photo Credit: Jeffrey Sturges.
Tom Wesselmann (American, b.1931, d.2004), Still Life #60, 1973. Oil on canvas; 122 1/4 x 333 x 86 1/2 in. Lent by Claire Wesselmann. © Estate of Tom Wesselmann/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, Photo Credit: Jeffrey Sturges.
***August 2018 addendum: More appreciation of Wesselmann’s work via the LA Times, reviewing “Wesselmann: 1963-1983” at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills.