New York

Tom Wesselmann

Janis Gallery

If Tom Wesselmann is provocative at all it is when he is metaphorically succinct, rather than illustrational and specific. He shows a new group of erotic cut-outs at the Janis Gallery, extending the iconography of the bedroom literally into our environment, with his Great American Nude #98—a set-up of enormous billboard like flats. All of the trappings which are the similes to erotic functions and parts are mapped out alongside of a nude who lies in a blatantly seductive pose, in the Great American Nude #91. And all of the equations are quite clearly spelled out—there’s really nothing left to imagine. As this occasion for overt voyeurism decreases, and only the metaphors for eroticism are depicted (fruit, flowers, pillows, cigarettes, etc.), such as in the Bedroom Painting #1, the possibility of the viewer extending his own suggestive fantasy into and beyond the work, increases. This is not an objection to the sexual aspect of the imagery per se: it only accounts for the observation that in such works it is more fascinating to associate by oblique analogy than by direct illustration. When Wesselmann zeroes in on exaggerated or cropped portions of the anatomy (or on equivalents for them) he is actually more direct in terms of sheer impact. The most startling piece in an otherwise monotonous group is an immense black mouth, which looks like the kiss of death. Its pearly teeth and dark lips are really quite perverse and morbid—and something entirely new within Wesselmann’s own enterprise. For the first time he is imitating black and white commercial reproductions, and in doing so, he also represses or denies the outright carnality of the other works.

The boundaries of subject matter have become more and more restricted in Wesselmann’s production, and likewise, the color range he employs has an oppressive, jaded quality. It is obvious that the use of cheap, almost antiseptic colors which refer to commercial printing inks or billboard paints works against the sensuality of the imagery. But it seems that this particular new range of coloration (no longer his bright, All-American primaries)—now sickly purples, chromey oranges, and rubbery pinks—only enforces that lack of freshness in the choice of subjects. Within the Pop idiom Oldenburg manages to maintain a high level of quality and formal invention in his over sized monuments or soft sculptures, because with them he is truly recreating his subject matter. Wesselmann however, has more trouble sustaining this vitality in two dimensions. His paintings are based on a set of received formal ideas, and he doesn’t effect any significantly sensitive transformations beyond the utter banality of these already commonplace sources. Another problem js that he cuts out some of the forms according to the actual contours of the depicted objects (the edges of throw pillows, toes, lips), while he also uses a technique of photographic cropping. These two methods of outlining or defining the peripheries of the canvas are combined quite arbitrarily—as in Mouth #13, where a stream of smoke which rises from the cigarette-holding lips is lopped off as if it were fitted into a rectangular composition (which it isn’t). One cannot overlook the extent to which this formal confusion forces the viewer back on the failed subject matter or on the crummy color, both patently unrewarding areas for consideration.

Emily Wasserman