Pop art. The term itself, an oxymoron derived from a shortening of the word “popular,” suggests just how radical it must have been, some 60 years ago, when fine artists first turned away from such esoteric subjects as truth and beauty to mainstream culture — comic books, movies, advertising, etc. — for inspiration. On Thursday at 6:30 p.m., in conjunction with the exhibition “Tom Wesselmann Draws,” the Kreeger Museum will host a panel discussion titled “Pop Art — Then and Now,” exploring the history and legacy of the movement.
The painter Tom Wesselmann, who died in 2004, was certainly not the most famous of the pop artists, playing second fiddle to such luminaries as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. But he may have been the one with the most laser-like focus, as this show of more than 60 drawings, dating from the 1960s to just before Wesselmann’s death, demonstrates. Nearly half of the pictures on view focus on the female nude. The rest are by and large still lifes.
Nothing new about the naked body.
Except that Wesselmann’s cuties of the ’60s and beyond seem less inspired by the bathers and odalisques of his artistic forebears than by the girlie magazines of the era. They’re frank and cheesecake-y (and maybe even a bit cheesy), but in a wholesome, all-American way. Wesselmann’s best-known series of paintings, inspired by his wife, Claire, are grouped under the “Great American Nude” banner. Four preparatory drawings from that series are included in the show.
But those pictures owe a debt of gratitude to someone other than Hugh Hefner. Look a little more closely at Wesselmann’s nudes and you may start to see hints of another of the artist’s heroes: the French painter Henri Matisse.
Tickets to “Pop Art — Then and Now” are $10. Call 202-338-3552 for reservations.