Tom Wesselmann and the Art of Colour

“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you
know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car.
It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road
that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing
is OK. You are OK.” (Don Draper, Mad Men, Episode 1, 2007)

The latest exhibition at Montréal’s Musée des Beaux-Arts brings together colours, pop art, fashion, and advertising like never before. The exhibition Tom Wesselmann: Beyond Pop Art is on from May 19 to October 7, 2012 and comprises 180 major works, some never before exhibited, featuring collages, billboards, nudes, 3-D abstractions, maquettes, archival documents, photographs, letters, music, and so on.

In collaboration with the Festival du Mode & Design, the museum hosted a Colour Block Party on Wednesday, August 1, 2012, inviting guests to visit the exhibition and attend a reception. Dress code: colour block! The sea of colours in the rooms complemented Wesselmann’s colour celebrations on the walls.


At the same time, Québec designers presented their creations inspired by Pop Art and colour block, furthering the collaboration between the museum and the Montréal fashion scene. Duc C. Nguyen presented one of his red geometric dresses from the “Coupé à vif” collection, Bodybag by Jude displayed a green bodysuit, and Iris Setlakwe opted for a classic red two-piece with black tights. Martin Lim selected a short black and white leather dress, while !Nu.I by Vickie fashioned a green blouse with black belt. The new looks were presented at the last runway show of the 12th edition of the Montreal Fashion and Design Festival.


In a lecture accompanying the exhibition, the curator, Stéphane Aquin (who also organized the Warhol Live: Music and Dance in Andy Warhol’s Work in 2008-09) introduced Wesselmann as “the world’s most famous unknown artist.” Organized chronologically, the exhibition follows Wesselmann’s work, from the earliest collages to the abstractions and Sunset Nudes of the late period, covering master works of the Pop era and the drawings and maquettes on which his work is based.

Tom Wesselmann was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1931. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in psychology, he decided to pursue a career in cartooning. Following graduation from the Art Academy of Cincinnati, Wesselmann moved to New York City to study at the Cooper Union, receiving a diploma from that institution in 1959.

Creating collages and assemblages that incorporated ordinary objects and images from the world of advertising, he became one of the leaders in the American Pop Art movement. Wesselmann created his first still lifes in 1962, and the new series of works met with a great deal of success. A classic genre of traditional painting, just like the nude, still lifes provided Wesselmann with new possibilities for expression. And it was that genre better than any other that enabled him to deftly arrange the advertising materials (plastic bottles, giant posters, low relief moulded displays of everyday consumer products) he obtained directly from manufacturers and sales agencies in collages bursting with colour.


A reflection of both American society’s post-war affluence and the mass intrusion of advertising upon the urban landscape, Wesselmann’s still lifes are also models of composition. The artist explored all possible permutations for the objects he worked with in the many exacting preparatory drawings that preceded each and every one of his works.

After writing a 1980 autobiography documenting the evolution of his art, he carried on with his investigation of shaped canvases and executed his first laser-cut metal works. He expanded on those themes in the 1990s and early 2000s, creating abstract three-dimensional pictures that brought him back to his artistic starting point. In the final years of his life, he returned to figuration, with his Sunset Nudes. Tom Wesselmann died in New York on December 17, 2004.

“The female nude was given respectability by the masters – Titian and Manet. Then people had to deal with me.” Wesselmann re-activates the scandalous aura of licentious images (Olympia…) that had paradoxically become decorative symbols of beauty. Faces with vacant gazes, wide open lips, erect nipples, explicit orgasms, sexually charged close-ups. Is society still too prudish to accept this?

“I consider myself, now and always, a formalist – less concerned about the image and more concerned about how it is formed.” (Tom Wesselmann)


Influenced by Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, Mondrian, and his fellow Pop artists, Wesselmann’s variety of art works, shapes, colours, symbols, and intertextuality captured the post-war 20th century culture in bold strokes. Our desire to engage with and understand the mystery and appeal of the 1960s and 1970s Pop Art, fashion, and advertising goes beyond nostalgia and is manifested by the popularity of TV-shows like Mad Men. The art and fashion produced during that era continue to be a source of inspiration today.

This entry was posted in Art, Design, Fashion, Festival, Montréal, Museums. Bookmark the permalink.

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