PRINT April 2005


Tom Wesselmann

BY NOW, the works of Tom Wesselmann, who died on December 17, 2004, have become textbook icons of the ’60s. Born in 1931, he began to paint, like other members of his generation, under the shadow of New York’s chef d’école, de Kooning, before veering in the direction of Bonnard’s and Matisse’s domestic interiors. But with the passing of the ’50s, startling intrusions appeared in his work, mirroring one of the landmark rebellions in twentieth-century art. In 1961, for example, in two of the earlier entries in “Great American Nude,” the ongoing series he began in the same year, Wesselmann slipped into Matisse’s world of recumbent nudes on gorgeously patterned textiles such dissonant surprises as a collaged cover of McCall’s magazine and a framed picture of Old Glory, a flag that, unlike Johns’s, was waving in rhythm with the curving anatomy of what had become an American, not a French, nude. And by 1962, as if following the zeitgeist that, at exactly the same time, had overtaken a youthful community of American artists, he stripped his canvases of any vestiges of old-fashioned, handmade, sensitive painting. In that vintage year, everything was suddenly fixed into a new language of harshly clear focus and a willfully impersonal facture, the kind that imitated the machine-made look of the commercial artist. Wesselmann’s inventory of subjects swiftly joined forces with those of his Pop contemporaries. To Warhol’s soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles he added a box of Lipton soup mix and a six-pack of Royal Crown Cola. To Lichtenstein’s benday-dot replications of Picasso and Mondrian, which drove a stake into the heart of modernism, he added, as if illustrating Walter Benjamin, reproductions of Matisse, Mondrian, and Renoir hanging on the walls of tacky American homes. To Rosenquist’s immersion in billboard imagery he added his own version of synthetic color and giant scale for packaged food and drink. And to Segal’s tableaux vivants, with their real bathtubs and neon signs, he added his own repertory of real-life, store-bought products—a shower curtain, a toilet seat, a telephone, a radio, a wall clock, a refrigerator door, all of which, unlike Rauschenberg’s assemblages of urban detritus, were spotlessly clean, purchased right out of Sears and Roebuck.

What most distinguishes Wesselmann from his colleagues was his lifelong infatuation with the sexual imagery of pop culture, shared in part with his California counterpart, Mel Ramos. But Wesselmann’s ongoing variations on the female nude offer a jarring update to a venerable Western tradition that echoes through historical corridors where the Venuses and odalisques, whores and studio models of Titian, Ingres, Manet, and Matisse hover like alien ghosts from a very different civilization. He confronted, head-on, the Americanization of this ancestry, translating into ambitious painting the locker-room fantasies of midcentury pinup girls, whether from calendar art or from the erotic imaginations of George Petty and Alberto Vargas in their Esquire centerfolds. All at once, the discomfort American artists had always experienced in painting a sexually charged female nude was buried, and a brazen new goddess of love was born. She is shameless and, judging from the frequent exposure of tanned flesh versus bikini-shielded whiteness, a California girl who might have joined the fun in Beach Blanket Bingo. Taking cues from Matisse, Wesselmann distills these supine bodies to their sexual essence, a flesh-scape where heads and torsos may be marked only by their erogenous zones. And these are at times subjected to even further pruning, as in paintings that offer only body fragments: a breast; a nail-polished foot or hand; a lipsticked mouth à la Warhol’s renderings of Marilyn Monroe’s own disembodied smile. This, of course, is major grist for feminist mills, since there could hardly be a more macho vision of women than as virtual sex toys. But Wesselmann can do this to male counterparts, too. In one of the series of “Bedroom Paintings,” for instance, the gentleman is represented by only an erect penis that, against a boudoir background, extends across some six feet of canvas. And looked at from the early twenty-first century, Wesselmann’s vision of flagrant female carnality, far from being politically incorrect, can be seen as ahead of its time. Think, for example, of the TV series The L Word, which, in a totally new and politically correct context of gender equality, has resurrected the California-style naked woman, but this time as the object of the most lustful, same-sex passions.

Sex was hardly the only thing on Wesselmann’s mind. His half century of work includes still lifes and landscapes and, perhaps more surprisingly, abstractions, which he began to make in 1993. Inspired again by Matisse, especially the paper cutouts, Wesselmann distilled his figurative paintings into sculptured metal reliefs that captured the overlapping jigsaw-puzzle shapes and rainbow colors that marked his signature style. In his last decade, this new, purist direction flourished, splitting his art into two complementary parts, the figurative and the abstract, a duality made clear in his last show at the Robert Miller Gallery in 2003. In fact, these parallel but different tracks were even reflected in the disciplined working habits of Wesselmann’s final years. He made abstractions every day of the week except Friday, which he reserved for further variations on his American nudes. As with Warhol and Lichtenstein, there was always inside him an abstract artist closeted beneath a Pop exterior. And it was this tug-of-war that gave his work its staying power.

Robert Rosenblum is professor of fine art at New York University and a contributing editor of Artforum.