A critique of Tom Wesselmann’s work at ‘Beyond Pop Art’

I have been reluctant to write a review of the new Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Tom Wesselmann exhibition Beyond Pop Art, because I am a fan and a member of the museum and I have been visiting MMFA exhibitions for the past six years, so criticizing them for this one event was to me unfair.

However, as the number of emails promoting Tom Wesselmann’s art increased, as did the museum’s ever growing outlandish praise of the artist, combined with the fact that this exhibition is now destined for Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, I am obligated as an art historian to speak out against his misogynistic, demeaning, and outright unethical work.

Here is how the organizers promote the artist: “Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004) was one of the greatest American artists associated with the Pop Art movement. Famous from the early 1960s for his Great American Nudes and Still Lifes, he is nonetheless the only one of his contemporaries associated with that seminal twentieth-century art movement who has not yet had a major exhibition in North America.”

Entering the exhibition, in the first section, we are faced with a number of large collages from the artist’s early career, where he is finding his own voice and starting to get noticed not for the quality of his art, but for the sizes of his pieces.

They are mishmashes of ideas and concepts, largely struggling to convey any coherent message to the viewer. The shameless use of the American flag in some pieces aims to give them identity, and, I suspect, attract the new wealthy American buyers who were starting to emerge in the scene with more money than taste.

Blatant stealing of images from the art of the past is also found rife within these images. Matisse, Renoir, Cézanne and Van Gogh being the most recognizable of whom Tom Wesselmann greedily copies in order to give his work some depth, whilst at the same time the pictures of famous figures give the work glamour.

This entrance is also where we are faced, for the first time, with the artist’s take on that inaccurately titled genre “Great American Nudes”, for if these works are great American anything, they are great American cons, designed to feed the appetite of the rich, misguided, sexist few men who like their women compliant, faceless, and more importantly awaiting their gentlemen callers naked and obediently docile.

These nudes are catering for that very recurring chauvinistic position of the male viewer which has been plaguing the history of art right from the beginning. This kind of take on the female body is why women saw themselves under attack in the arts. The nude genre in particular has been dominated by artists painting for the male gaze, forsaking in turn any dignity or strength of character the female model might have had.

There are a few exceptions who were pioneers in giving the female model the upper hand, like Manet, however Tom Wesselmann is not one of them—even considering that he was working nearly a century after Manet one might have supposed him to be more enlightened. Alas, for Mr. Wesselmann, faceless, erotic, lustful women were the way forward, and he tirelessly repeats these images throughout his career.

Sex sells. A sentiment which has become the modus operandi of advertising campaigns ever since the birth of Marketing. And pop art was there at the start of it all, never breaking away from it, citing empowerment of women through sexual desire as an excuse for objectifying them. Sexual power is the very definition of an ephemeral quality which is lost with time, and, if we accept it as a fundamental way of empowering women, we are doing years of struggle for equality by female thinkers, philosophers, and feminists a great injustice.

Tom Wesselmann wrote his own history, a version that uses sex to sell work and now our museums are cementing his name in the books. Looking back I can only see him being different in medium and style, all other aspects of his work remind me of why I detest so much of the superficial art made to be kept in the studies of the bourgeois as conversation pieces when all the men would retire for brandy after dinner.

Sexual allure alone should not dictate attraction, because it can be used to degrade. Art of the nude must be approached with great care as the line between inspiring and crass is very thin. With a simple act like denying his models facial features and identity as human beings, Tom Wesselmann over and over again creates scenarios where the people cease and a fetish objects are born, and I for one refuse to call them great art.

Beyond Pop Art will be at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until October 7th 2012.

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