TOM WESSELMANN: THE SIXTIES
L&M Arts through April 15 (45 E78 Street at Madison Avenue, 212 861 0020)
TOM WESSELMANN: SUNSET NUDES
Robert Miller Gallery through April 22 (524 W26 Street, between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 366 4774)
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, March 30, 2006
The sublime and the ridiculous. Americana and art history. Ephemera and high culture—Tom Wesselmann wanted it all. Now, in a pair of shows bookending his career, there is an opportunity to assess whether the artist, who died in December 2004, achieved his desired synthesis: L&M have his early, iconic contribution to Pop Art from the 1960s, while Robert Miller are showing what turned out to be aptly titled last works, his Sunset Nudes.
From the outset, Wesselmann was the most unabashedly sexual of the canonical Pop Artists (he emerged at the same moment as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and fellow Ohian Jim Dine). Many Pop Artists played upon the sex in commercial design, sending up the crass basic instincts of advertising, but in Wesselmann the equation always seemed weighted in the opposite direction: the female nude was placed center-stage, the pop items surrounding her taking erotic charge from her proximity. It is not, in other words, that he was revealing the eroticism of a coke bottle so much as the fizzy delight of a nude.
Like Warhol, who started out as a fashion illustrator, Wesselmann’s background was in commercial art (he studied cartooning). When he turned to fine art he imported the sensibility and techniques associated with the applied arts. There is no small degree of affront entailed in applying mass culture techniques—cool, dispassionate, billboard-like rendering—to something as venerable and old masterly as the odalisque.
These two exhibitions reveal how different it is to think about Wesselmann’s relationship to tradition in relation to his Pop moment and his personal development. Seeing nudes lifted directly from Matisse and other art historical sources, or improvised in the manner of Matisse, in contemporary interiors with all the mod cons, or “white bread” mass-produced American foodstuffs placed on a par with the bounty of the traditional still life painting, makes it seem as if he is intent on denigration—a nihilistic leveling of unique beauty and ubiquitous crap.
But the sumptuous, serene decoration of his coolly crafted late works at Robert Miller makes the opposite seem possible, that he saw himself in a continuum with art history, speaking the timeless language of the nude with an American accent. “Sunset Nude with Matisse Odalisque” (2003) at Miller almost seems a manifesto statement about succession, with his own sleek, reductive blonde sitting in front of a Matisse, transcribed in his flat, cartoonish hand, as if they are passengers in a vehicle conveying them through art history.
The irony with Wesselmann is that blantancy makes him sublte, opening up his images to multiple readings and competing values. He could equally be celebrated as a proto-feminist or castigated as an abject sexist in his equation of lust and commodity. Like his white bread still life motifs, his all-American beauties are presented non-judgementally, devoid alike of personal investment or political critique.
His nudes are so extreme in their availablity that they parody any sense of actual arousal—and yet, in their cool, slick rendering they are actually way more kinky than they would be if dispatched with passion. “Great American Nude #92” (1967) is typical of his collision of literalism and metaphor. (And his titles are also heavy with attitude, as numbering emphasises production line ubiquity.) A blonde is splayed on her back, lying on a leopard spread (from collaged actual fabric) with oranges and flowers on a side table. Her raised, naked, bent right leg is caught in a flattened profile. Her black-stockinged left leg, in contrast, protruding towards the viewer, is anatomically credible, and rendered volumetrically. Her pudenda, rhyming with the beadspread (and forming a verbal pun with spread, perhaps) is made from actual, wire material. The crotch and breasts are highlighted in Wesselmann’s trademark bikini tan marks, while the cropped head is eyeless with an open mouth and exposed tongue. The figure is highly stylized, graphically reductive, and invested with all the cliches of sexual availability.
Wesselmann’s humorous play of literalism against representation can approach the zany. “Still Life #25” (1963) is a tour de force of flat rendering of volumentric thrings and relief rendering of flat things: the loaf of white bread, slices falling into the viewer’s space, is a painted sculptural object, while the nobs on the range and the oven mitt are real. He has a love, in these early works, of appropriating actual, functioning devices and machines. His depiction of a train compartment, “Interior #2” (1964) includes a working fan, a clock, a bottle of 7up, metal window frames and screws, and painterly renderings of a curtain and seat. The photographic cityscape seen through the window occupies an intermediary state in terms of the mechanical and the actual. A similarly dumb semiotics comes across, ingenuously, in “Bedroom Painting #8” which brings an erect female nipple and an orange, with its nipple, into Sistine Ceiling-like connectivity.
Wesselmann may have seemed to have been poking fun at Matisse in his early appropriations of his nudes, but the tenacity with which he parodied and emulated the French master right up to his last works has to be taken at surface value as a genuine homage. Even as art history took over from consumer technology as Wesselmann’s principal source, however, he never really lost his machine aesthetic. The skill and scale of late Wesselmann are prodigious. Robert Miller is filled with complicated interlocking sculptural reliefs, humungous, smoothly dispatched paintings, and dexterous cutouts in aluminum to the point of seeming like an auto showroom. It is impossible to beieve that so canny an artist as Wesselmann didn’t realize the aesthetic alienation of his own industry, how the output of his studio was as mouthwateringly vacuous as the capitalism he had taken on in his youth.