New York

Tom Wesselmann

Sidney Janis Gallery

Myths like Tom Wesselmann are hard to talk about, but I find it easier with my post-Conceptual perspective. Confidence in the world of appearances is returning. Visual is no longer the dirty word it was, and this fact is liberating artists, critics, galleries, and collectors alike. Seeing Wesselmann’s show with its stunning wall-to-wall and ceiling-to-ceiling paintings, I was convinced of the absolute necessity of visual models in our cultural life—whether the images be on canvas, photographic paper, or film. Wesselmann is in the enviable position of not having passed through the debilitating blood-letting of the pseudo-issues of Conceptual art. Therefore, he’s not lost touch with the power of visual imagery dependent on scale, color, texture, etc. for its success. His recent Smoke paintings and Still Life # 60 still convey magic and surprise to me; with one foot in the mythology of Abstract Expressionism, and the other in the kitsch imagery of Times Square, they evoke strong emotions.

How does Wesselmann do this? When you compare him to the others of the “Pop Five”—Lichtenstein, Oldenburg, Rosenquist and Warhol (or six including Dine)—Wesselmann seems very much the plodder. Wesselmann is perhaps “the most American of them all” in the sense Jones Beach is an all-American beach—scale and grandeur without intimacy, and the water is fucking cold. Wesselmann has none of the dazzle of flashy mark-makers like Dine, Rosenquist, or Oldenburg. With his lovingly crafted stretchers and their immaculate lists of kinds and percentages of paints on the back, and what looks like about ten coats for each area on the front, Wesselmann does awkward stuff. And he doesn’t display any painterly virtuosity or variety of subject matter. He is obsessed by particular subjects. Hasn’t the Smoker series been underway for eight years or so?

You might think Wesselmann’s crudeness of imagery would ally him with Lichtenstein. What could be more crude than Wesselmann’s earlier Great American Nudes, perhaps the most delightfully tasteless paintings of all time? Aren’t they close to the comic stylizations of Lichtenstein? Not in the slightest. Crude though his source comics might be, Lichtenstein’s Benday stenciling, flat and linear arrangements, have a sophistication endearing him to certain abstract painters who wish he’d abandon his narrative element and join them—an invitation that would never be extended to Wesselmann. His images are strong and memorable in an obstinate way, like advertising icons. Consider Smoker #13. Most immediately striking are subject and scale. He paints familiar objects, but only in a sense—if you know very big people. Mouths are only that big on billboards, in movies, and good dreams. Gigantic glossy lips, swirling smoke, silky fingers, glowing cigarettes are billboard scale. Yet they’re not on billboards, but on the wall of a four-sided room with air conditioning. So they’re familiar but unfamiliar. The image of a woman’s partly opened red mouth, disembodied, a hand poised holding a glowing cigarette, smoke swirling, is a psychologically strong subject with personal, cultural, and sexual overtones. I’m pleased to say if chauvinism is defined as treating women as objects Wesselmann is a full-blown chauvinist. Out of curiosity I did a quick calculation with my new Litronic 1102 pocket calculator and found Smoker #13 about 21.625 times life-size, Smoker #8 about 27.291 times life-size, and the sun glasses in Still Life #60 about 60.545 times life-size. And they all look a lot bigger because one’s viewing distance is controlled by the size of the gallery. You can only step back so far. Unlike billboards, the paintings in this context put one in the embarrassing position of not being able to escape from intimacies writ large. On the one hand, you have a curious loss of intimacy by scale change on the artist’s part, and on the other, a regaining of intimacy by the gallery.

Wesselman is particularly interesting at the present because his paintings transcend notions of historical rectitude, or, in other words, what he ought to do. What Wesselmann does he’s obviously infatuated by, and that infatuation still comes across. He cares. And consequently I care. It’s not an intellectual decision, but an emotional one.

––James Collins