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Montreal Museum of Fine Arts hosts first North American retrospective of the work by Tom Wesselmann
Tom Wesselmann, Still Life No. 35, 1963. Oil and collage on canvas, 304.80 x 487.68 cm. The Estate of Tom Wesselmann, New York© Estate of Tom Wesselmann/SODRAC, Montreal/VAGA, New York (2012). Photo: Jeffrey Sturges.

MONTREAL.- Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004) was one of the greatest American Pop artists. His interpretation of the history of art and the definition of genres led him, along with Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, to invent a new, Pop, aesthetic. He incorporated all sorts of materials into his work, as well as reproductions of paintings he liked, in particular by Matisse, Picasso and Mondrian. Famous from the early 1960s for his Great American Nudes and Still Lifes, he was nonetheless the only one of his contemporaries associated with that seminal twentieth-century art movement who had not yet had a major presentation in North America. The exhibition Tom Wesselmann: Beyond Pop Art, on view in a Canadian exclusive at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts from May 19 to October 7, 2012, constitutes a historic opportunity to offer the North American public an overall view of the artist’s oeuvre. It comprises some 180 major works, some of them never before been exhibited, including seventy-five paintings representing Wesselmann’s most significant series (such as his earliest metal pieces using laser steel-cutting) as well as seventy-five preliminary drawings and maquettes and about thirty archival documents (photographs, letters, billboards and so on). The exhibition, organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts with the full support of the Estate of Tom Wesselmann, New York, will travel to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond in spring 2013.

Nathalie Bondil, the MMFA’s Director and Chief Curator, explained, “This retrospective will demonstrate that Tom Wesselmann’s work should not be viewed with a “literal” focus but rather a “literary” one – to paraphrase the artist. Like others of the Pop generation, he thought of his art as a re-reading of art history. His complex way of playing with the intensity of his images, making them jostle with each other, demonstrates the great intellectual effort that went into their making. The obsessive concern with contrast is one of the most interesting aspects of his oeuvre, as he plays with the ambiguity of the subject to emphasize the form and vice versa.”

The loans come from various leading public and private collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Mugrabi Collection, the Berardo Collection, the Robert B. Mayer Family Collection, Chicago, and the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation, Los Angeles, as well as from the Estate of Tom Wesselmann, New York.

Most people are aware of Tom Wesselmann’s brilliant career as a painter. However, he was also a devoted fan of country music and a prolific songwriter in that genre. Music was not simply a hobby for Tom Wesselmann but another creative outlet, and he put all his energy into it. By the end of his life, he had written over 400 songs, a number of which were recorded. One of his compositions, “I Love Doing Texas with You,” sung by Kevin Trainor, even earned some fame by being included on the soundtrack for the Ang Lee film Brokeback Mountain. “Since the place that music now occupies at the Museum is very important to me, some of Tom Wesselmann’s musical works will also be showcased in the exhibition,” said Nathalie Bondil.

Organized chronologically, the exhibition follows the rational and methodical development of Wesselmann’s work, series by series, from the earliest collages to the abstractions and Sunset Nudes of the late period, covering masterworks of the Pop era and the drawings and maquettes on which his work is based. From one series to the next, Wesselmann tackles a variety of formal concerns that this exhibition has divided into four main sections: Genre, Form, Line and Composition.

- Early Collages: From the Abstract to the Figurative

When he began to create art in the 1950s, Wesselmann simultaneously explored abstract collages of found pieces of paper and the art of the nude, where the influence of Matisse is evident. This section of the exhibition will include abstract and figurative works from this time, many of which have never been exhibited before.

- Updating the Classic Genres: Nudes, Still Lifes and American Landscapes
Wesselmann decided very early in his career to investigate and reinvent traditional genres like the nude, still life and landscape, considered moribund at the time. Beginning with collages, he incorporated all sorts of materials in his work: advertising billboards, plastic flowers, television sets and neon signs as well as reproductions of paintings he liked. This section will present major works from the Great American Nudes, Still Lifes, Bathtub Collages and Seascapes series that made his name in the eyes of his contemporaries and in the history of art.

- Form, Focus, Scale
Wesselmann was interested in the issues of form and scale: the form of his works followed that of the subjects he painted. The second section of the exhibition starts with the extraordinary paintings of the Smokers series, such as Smoker No. 1 from the MoMA’s collection. His investigations also led him to use the negative space of cut-out forms as an element in his compositions. This section includes numerous monumental works from the series Mouths, Smokers, Bedroom Paintings and Drop-Outs, as well as gigantic works like Still Life No. 60, composed of objects – sunglasses, lipstick, a necklace, a key, a ring – grouped to compose a kind of giant portrait.

- The Final Years: Reconciling the Abstract and the Figurative
Towards the end of his life, Wesselmann turned back to abstraction. However, he did not give up the figurative approach on which he had based his career, but executed both abstract and figurative works simultaneously with the skills acquired by tackling formal problems throughout his career. This section displays the superb series of Abstractions and Sunset Nudes series painted when he knew the end was near. It also includes Exhibition Detail, an installation in which he placed two of his last pieces, an abstract composition and a nude, side by side.

- Gallery of Drawings
A master draftsman, Wesselmann archived the groups of preparatory drawings for all the various series and periods in his work. They demonstrate his tireless creativity and the extraordinary sureness of his line. This part of the exhibition will feature a wide array of his drawings on paper and canvas, and also his maquettes, life-size or in miniature. Whether studies for works or carefree jottings, most of them will be on view for the very first time. This section also contains a group of small preliminary maquettes that have never been exhibited before. Musical works by the artist can also be heard.

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