Pop Art Is Popping Up At Cincinnati Art Museum

Artists have to come from somewhere, I suppose. Still, it’s remarkable how many of the giants of Pop Art came from and/or matriculated in our stretch of the Midwest — Andy Warhol was born in Pittsburgh, Robert Indiana in the Hoosier state, Roy Lichtenste

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Artists have to come from somewhere, I suppose. Still, it’s remarkable how many of the giants of Pop Art came from and/or matriculated in our stretch of the Midwest — Andy Warhol was born in Pittsburgh, Robert Indiana in the Hoosier state, Roy Lichtenstein studied at Ohio State and Jim Dine and Tom Wesselmann both were born in Cincinnati. 

Both Dine and Wesselmann are the subject of upcoming Cincinnati Art Museum activities — Dine next month and Wesselmann in 2014. At 10 a.m. on April 4, Dine’s 12-foot-tall bronze sculpture Pinocchio (Emotional) — a new museum acquisition — will be unveiled in the traffic-circle island outside the main entrance. It will join Mark DiSuvero’s abstract Atman as a signature outdoor artwork. 

Dine, 76, long has been fascinated by the Pinocchio story and has created prints, paintings and sculpture related to the wooden puppet who takes on a life of his own. The sculpture’s acquisition process started after the museum awarded Dine its first Cincinnati Art Award in 2010. Also on display in the galleries will be a newly acquired print portfolio from Dine’s illustrations for Carlo Collodi’s book, The Adventures of Pinocchio.  

“It is connected to whole Pygmalion myth, the notion the 

artist can create something that comes alive but then leads a life all its own and maybe misbehaves and creates trouble   for the artist as well. So it’s become his alter ego,” Museum Director Aaron Betsky says of Dine’s interest in Pinocchio.

As Betsky and Jessica Flores Garcia, the Contemporary Art  associate curator, were describing the sculpture’s location, I realized it is where the bust of another native son, Sen. Robert A. Taft, used to be. I asked where it had gone, surprised I for one didn’t even notice its removal. Betsky didn't know offhand, saying it hadn't been there when he arrived at the museum. Turns out the museum gave it to  the William Howard Taft National Historic Site in Mount Auburn about a decade ago — the senator was President Taft's son. There’s probably a dissertation somewhere in the symbolism of switching Taft for Pinocchio and what it says about the role of the art museum in the 21st Century.

“We think it will put a cheerful and accessible face (on the museum),” Betsky says. “We think this will make a good balance with that wonderful classical entry piece.”

Meanwhile, not long after Betsky arrived here in 2006, he began considering a retrospective for Wesselmann, who died in 2004 at age 73 and was most famous for his colorful, abstracted, flat-formed paintings of “Great American Nude” women. In 2009 Betsky told this writer the museum was organizing one, and he later added it was collaborating with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. However, the retrospective is scheduled to open May 18 in Montreal, and there is no mention of Cincinnati. (The Wesselmann estate, which helped organize the show, lists on its website Virginia Museum of Fine Arts as a 2013 venue.) So what gives?

It turns out Cincinnati couldn’t show it so soon, but has scheduled a somewhat retooled Wesselmann retrospective for January 2014. Afterward, it will go to Denver. But while a majority of the roughly 100 major works will be the same as the Montreal show, about a dozen or so will be different. And Cincinnati is planning a change in focus from Montreal’s emphasis on Wesselmann’s contribution to Pop.

“He’s obviously an artist of signal importance who, when he died, was not as recognized as he should have been,” Betsky says. “In recent years, people have come back to look at his work and realize it wasn’t just Pop, but a way of looking at American consumer culture and the grand tradition of Western art — and interweaving them. That has led to a large project to get Wesselmann back in the public eye.”

Flores says she hopes to position Wesselmann’s work as part of its times, especially the women’s rights movement. 

“Wesselmann’s looking at the female nude was really a way of celebrating it, and not necessarily exploiting it,” she says.

Look for this show to posit these interesting ideas on Wesselmann’s work, along with presenting his art on a grand scale for his hometown.

The museum also is looking for an off-site space for the show, whose size creates problems for installation at its Eden Park building. 

“We like the idea of going into the real world,” Betsky says. “We want to be right in the city where the commercial life is.”

The online version of this article was updated on March 22 to reflect corrected information relating to the Taft bust.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]

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