New York

Tom Wesselmann

Sidney Janis Gallery

Tom Wesselmann’s latest show at Janis included ten large oil paintings, eight oil studies, several charcoal drawings, and a maquette. The central works were more of his Bedroom Paintings, and nearly everything on view contained the imagery of that series—a woman’s face in a picture frame, a woman’s body foreshortened, roses, toes, an alarm clock, a perfume bottle. Wesselmann is automatically given a place among the founders of American Pop art. Furthermore, his persistent reliance on the original tenets of his style has earned him the reputation of the last of the hard-core Pop artists still working that vein. I think it’s possible that he is included among the founders only by critical default. It’s true that the most obvious aspects of his work and career make a good case for this inclusion: his hard-edge representational style; his choice of subject matter; the scale of his work; and the timing of his first appearance. But his early use of collage and assemblage, and his continued use of traditional compositional de vices make the opposite case. These aspects of his work, while less obvious, are more fundamental.

As is well known, Pop art wasn’t original in introducing banal and commercial imagery into high art. Cubism did it early in the century, and the practice continued in the styles that developed formally out of Cubism. It was done in a different way by Dada and Surrealism. Perhaps one can say that it had been done in the previous century by Impressionism and the styles that developed out of it. And certainly one can say that it was done—in still a different way—by the genre and trompe-l’oeil painting of the 18th and 19th cen turies. American Pop artists, specifically the Pop art painters, were original in their irony: they transposed allover composition from its “native” locale in postwar American abstraction to a representational mode derived from commercial sources. The shift from personal, inward, and aggressively esthetic imagery to imagery of the opposite kind, impersonal, public, and aggressively vulgar, created an opposition which the best Pop art painters undercut by maintaining this one crucial formal development of the period preceding their own. They found commercial subject matter suitable 83 to their deadpan intention because it is immediately recognizable—it is blatant, not obscured in mists of “personality”; and, more often than not, it is frontal. This extraordinary transposition—seen at its best in Warhol and Lichtenstein—was anticipated by the acerbities of Jasper Johns’ flags and targets.

Wesselmann used banal and commercial imagery from the start, but he always deployed it to achieve variants on traditional pictorial depth, traditional value contrast, and traditional formal equilibrium—in short, traditional composition. He has never come near a representational version of the allover composition developed by postwar American abstract painting. Hence he is not a Pop artist. He does not b.elong to American Pop as it was originated by Warhol and Lichtenstein.

In his latest show he drifts even further from the genuine Pop art style. One of his large Bedroom Paintings presents its images on separate canvases. Though there are wide spaces between the elements of the work, their relationships to each other are not sculptural or environmental, but pictorial. The result is an expansion of collage. It has more formal connection to Cubist work in that medium and to synthetic Cubist painting than to the allover blatancy of Warhol’s portraits or Lichtenstein’s “stolen” comic book panels, the Pop art paintings whose subject matter is closest to Wesselmann’s.

Wesselmann is a Pop artist by virtue of his imagery alone. He is modernist eclectic, deploying Poporienting imagery according to conventions derived from earlier styles. I’ve mentioned his reliance on Cubism. He is influenced as well by the late Matisse, early Jim Rosenquist, and now, apparently, by Alex Katz; at the beginning of his career he drew on Dada and Surrealist assemblage.

Carter Ratcliff