Beyond Pop: A Tom Wesselmann Retrospective opens to the general public today at Cincinnati Art Museum, with an Art After Dark Halloween costume party from 5-9 p.m. part of the celebrations for the late native-Cincinnatian, New York-based Pop artist.
But last night, members of the museum’s Founders Society level ($1,500-$50,000) got a special opening that included Wesselmann’s widow (and frequent model) Claire discussing her husband’s work with Jeffrey Sturges, studio manager for the Tom Wesselmann Estate.
The presentation started with Matt Distel, the museum’s adjunct curator for Contemporary art, praising the exhibit’s installation — especially the work of chief perparator Kim Flora. “You would hardly know how difficult and heavy those pieces are — they look like they float off the wall,” he said.
I would agree — some of Wesselmann’s complex pieces as gigantic canvases, some are shaped canvases with three-dimensional elements, some are assemblages with sculptural elements, and he did a series of “metal paintings” (oil or enamel on cut-out aluminum) that had to be difficult to handle and mount. None looks graceless or awkward in the gallery spaces.
Next, Claire presented the museum with a gift — one of Wesselmann’s metal paintings, “Barn Near Hilltop Airport.” And she explained how much her husband wanted a U.S. museum retrospective while he was alive, revealing that he saved important works for such an occasion and even prepared a speech in his diary.
She read an excerpt: “I loved being alive even though I buried myself alive in my work.”
(He died in 2004 at age 73. While he had European retrospectives, this is the first in the U.S./Canada. It has already been in Montreal, Richmond, Va., and Denver — this is the last stop. Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts with the Estate’s assistance organized the first two stops; Cincinnati the last two.)
During her conversation with Sturges, Claire offered some insights into her husband’s work. One of his great early Pop innovations, the use of cutout images from billboard advertising posters as collage elements in his paintings, came about for practical reasons.
As a poor artist, he could get those for the asking — he wrote to companies to send them. And he knew how to get them free, too. “At that time, they took down subway posters and threw them in the can,” she said. “So then Tom came along and took them.”
She also revealed that Tom loved the Abstract Expressionist art in vogue in the mid- to-late 1950s, when they were attending New York’s Cooper Union college together. But he knew he needed to do something new. “Abstraction was the thing he really wanted to do, but he took another path,” she said. “But he came back to it.”
As Tom moved through different themes in his work, in the 1990s he started turning to abstraction in his metal paintings. A picture of one, 1993’s “Claire’s Thigh,” was shown at the presentation. “I like this very much, minus the title,” Claire said.
During the question-and-answer period, there was also discussion of Tom’s infatuation with Country and Western music. He wrote more than 400 songs and some were recorded. One, “I Love Doing Texas With You,” was played softly in the film Brokeback Mountain. The retrospective has a small display devoted to his music, although no way to hear any of it.
Claire said when she and Tom would visit his parents in Cincinnati from New York he’d listen to country music on the radio. “He’d take the car and we’d go driving and he’d flip on the country stations,” she said. He’d say, ‘I like the stories.’”
Visit www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org for exhibit details.