New York

Henry Wessel, Jr.

Charles Cowles Gallery

Whatever qualms I might have about Rauschenberg’s photo pieces, as tours de force they would be hard to top. Two floors above the gallery in which they were shown, an exhibition of the photography of Henry Wessel, Jr. was being held at the same time. Wessel’s photographs are everything Rauschenberg’s aren’t. Like Rauschenberg, Wessel simply walks around making pictures of whatever catches his eye. But one reason Rauschenberg’s configurations so easily transcend the individual photographs in them is that each photograph is, in and of itself, very prosaic. Each is just a document of a found image. Wessel’s photographs are much more than this. Each of them is intensely seen. It is a made image rather than a found one, and it would be hard to imagine using such photographs the way Rauschenberg uses his. Wessel’s couldn’t be overridden as Rauschenberg’s can.

Some of Wessel’s photographs contain an internal formalism, an association of forms, not unlike that which exists from picture to picture in Rauschenberg’s pieces. In one of the best photographs in Wessel’s show, for instance, a little girl on a sidewalk by the sea dribbles a beach ball past a scrawny, bare tree. The ball hits the pavement a few feet away from the base of the tree, around which there is a thick patch of foliage. Visually, the ball and the foliage bounce off one another. But it isn’t this juxtaposition of like shapes that makes the picture. It is something inherently ludicrous about the tree all by itself. With its empty, gangling limbs above and the mound of foliage at its base, it looks as awkward and embarrassed as a woman whose taffeta petticoat has just fallen around her ankles. The rest of the picture—the girl who happens by with her beach ball, and an oddly spaced assortment of people in the water in the background—is organized around this peculiar tree. But the tree stands alone. Our response to it is as spontaneous as laughter. It exists independent of any visual equations that can be analyzed.

Wessel is a transplanted Easterner who now lives in San Francisco and photographs in the West—in California, Arizona, Utah, even Hawaii. He takes full advantage of the fact that a good deal of life in these places is lived outdoors. To a scene such as that along the ocean in Venice, California, where a number of pictures in the show were made, Wessel brings an Easterner’s disbelief which sharpens his eyesight and gives his work its uniqueness. In many pictures we see Wessel as a street-shooter in the classic mold, as when he catches two baton twirlers and a helicopter in the same frame. This picture relies on the sort of agility and instant response to action that marks Cartier-Bresson’s work. But other pictures in Wessel’s show are less flamboyant. They have no people in them and are a reaction not to zany behavior, but to the quiet oddities of the landscape. It is in these, I think, that we see Wessel at his most subtle.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.