Reviewed by Karen Schwartzkopf
Everybody knows Andy Warhol. Many have heard of Roy Lichtenstein. But Tom Wesselmann? Hmmm. If the name doesn’t strike a chord, the artwork should soon inspire a symphony of voices in your family.
Pop Art and Beyond: Tom Wesselmann is the temporary exhibit at VMFA and the talk of RVA. Like Chihuly and Picasso before it, it’s also a fantastic incentive for Richmond area parents to invest in a family membership at VMFA. As the only East Coast venue to offer this groundbreaking exhibit, it’s a natural for VMFA, considering the museum’s synergetic relationship with Sydney and Frances Lewis – Richmonders, art collectors, and pop art devotees.
First, let me address the PG rating you may have already seen. American painter Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004), long-associated with the pop art movement, is perhaps best known for his Great American Nude series. These works incorporate the artist’s exploration of the female form with images along a patriotic theme, like photos of classic American landscapes, the United States flag, Abe Lincoln, and the Founding Fathers. Some of these nudes are painted in grand scale and make you want to apply sunscreen even as you stand before them. Others are collaged from magazines and discarded posters, and are also enormous.
While I’m not suggesting you can work in an SOL review as you stroll this exhibit, I am sure there will be plenty to talk about with your young art aficionado if you are so inclined. Beyond nipples (and it really is more nipples as opposed to breasts, as apparently Wesselmann’s muses were not well-endowed) the Ohio-born artist’s work also demonstrates his particular fondness for lips. In The Smokers, the other major series in the exhibit, cigarettes, smoke, and the mouth are depicted in bold detail. In today’s anti-smoking culture, this might be another reason for the rating, as smoking does seem to be presented as alluring. It was another age, after all.
But rest assured, there is much more to Pop Art and Beyond than nudes and cigarettes. There are over 150 works in the show representing Wesselmann’s entire career – including what are referred to as steel-cut drawings. These works of color and energy, some of them wall-sized, will take your breath away as you round the corner to discover what the exhibit designers have expertly situated for VFMA visitors’ enjoyment. Much to Richmond’s delight, Claire Wesselmann presented one of these metalworks to VMFA for its permanent collection.
I’ve said before that VMFA is a fantastic place for kids of all ages. I’ve been taking my kids there since they were in preschool, and we have a family membership. But like a place of worship, a library, or a hospital, the VMFA galleries call for a certain sense of decorum from those who visit. A parent considering the Wesselmann exhibit at VMFA for her kids should know that it is truly an invitation to talk to children about the origin of art and its inspiration. I first visited Pop Art and Beyond with my 14-year-old, who at the time, was working on her own pop art in her eighth grade art class. She was in awe of Wesselmann’s work, but readily volunteered that her younger sister may have a hard time with the exhibit. Interestingly, we both agreed it won’t be the nudes that might cause the 12-year-old to stir a bit, but rather, The Smokers series. (Yes, she’s one of those kids who glares at real-world smokers no matter where she sees them. And she also snickers when someone says “balls” – so we’ll see how this goes.) That said, I’m a firm believer in art as an innocuous introduction for kids to what some might consider suggestive subject matter. Remember, what our kids might accidentally see on YouTube these days can be far more disturbing than taking in Tom Wesselmann’s pop art with an adult for an hour or two.
Pop Art and Beyond: Tom Wesselmann runs through July 28 and is a ticketed event at VMFA. It’s well worth the price of admission, but if you can wait until International Museum Day on May 18, you can get in to Pop Art for free. You might also investigate the family membership. With that investment, get free admission – along with many other perks from VMFA, including free parking in the VMFA deck and dining and gift shop discounts.