Los Angeles

Tom Wesselmann

Newport Harbor Art Museum

Tom Wesselmann always seemed to me the least of the “core” group of Pop artists because his work is essentially a Beaux-arts product with a Pop image. Although the exhibition at NHAM does fill in a gap in Southern California’s direct knowledge of New York Pop, and although it concentrates admirably on the “early still lifes, 1962–64,” that initial suspicion isn’t dispelled. Perhaps it’s because Wesselmann, more than the others, is propelled by the impetus of the original Pop sensibility: the seizing of lower echelon sign-painter techniques and the automatic enigma of kitsch inventory as a way out of the cul-de-sac created by Abstract Expressionism. By now, though, it’s hard to feel the crisis which threw Wesselmann into Pop. In 1960, according to Tom Garver’s catalog essay, Wesselmann set himself the following goals, among others: keeping the picture plane in front of the canvas, tying the painting to the front, not the back, working the colors against each other in a competitive, dynamic way, keeping the space shallow, and dispersing the central images around the canvas. Hardly the stuff, once the glare of brand names and portable radios has worn off, art revolutions are made of.

The best things in the show are the “three-dimensional drawings”—simplistic assemblages approximating the finished (colored) works in size, but rendered in austere mock-up of charcoal and white paint; they possess an economy and tightness of fit of medium in regard to the impact of the imagery (billboard still life) which is either overblown in the colored works or suffocated in stagecraft in the achromatic but “real-life” setups like Interior No. 2, 1964 (real chrome clock and spiral neon light, real metal fan and screen, etc.). There is a basic unbelievability about these things (i.e., an intimation that we’re not expected to be jarred), manifested in touching details such as the sincere charcoal rendering of clock-face numbers which saves them from the all-out, soprano ferocity of most of the rest. The big paintings, like Still Life No. 35 and 36 are impressive now for reasons half a compass away from the imagery, tingling disorientation of color and near and far space which welcomed those who, eight years ago, walked into the accustomed white-walled, walk-up nest of respectable brushy abstraction and found it harboring raucous recreations of the very thing from which they fled. Now, the pictures look like big teddy bears—friendly, simpleminded, reassuring (“capitalist realism”)—and we wonder what it was that managed to threaten and titillate us not that long ago. (To be sure, Wesselmann is “competent” in the art school sense; his vocabulary of edges, scale juxtaposition, his way of rendering angles—making a six-foot glass of milk seem twenty feet high—and impositions of collage materials is enough to make any Erie Loran happy. But those are the virtues, in a way, which Wesselmann ought not to have, and which, in the later work, he disowned.) Wesselmann displays, I think, a surprisingly insensitive color sense for so much bright stuff, even allowing for purposeful banality; he’s able to mix it up discernibly enough to keep the picture jumping (i.e. no blue bordering blue), but none of it has the perverse poetry of Warhol’s scuzzy process colors. The thing Wesselmann does best, however, is to compose; his arrangements are integrally honest (straight up and down, legible, stand still, smile, say cheese), but off-beat enough to contain some interesting cracks, between, say a Coke and a pear, worthy of a second look. Lastly, Wesselmann seems to have a literary dimension: the works are about the reasonable insanity, the silent buzz of paranoia hovering in places like the American kitchen: the shelf is clean, the portable radio well-designed, the fruit delicious and the plumbing perfect, but the whole psychological collage rips and tears at the mind like an electric hyena. Beneath the concern with being a naugahyde Matisse, there is a considerable amount of terror in Wesselmann’s pictures.

Peter Plagens