New York

Tom Wesselmann

Sidney Janis Gallery

In the late ’60s Tom Wesselmann’s view of the world, as evident in his lolling, smoking, poolside nudes, didn’t seem so much a view as a type of view: flat, with a Pop-processed look, and common to many others of the day. The character Benjamin, for example, through whose eyes we were meant to see The Graduate, held it too. It was the view of the ineloquent critic, of the social critic without a social contract who had little to work with beyond a posture—innocence by disassociation, and an eye just quick enough to pick up on the low-comedy by-products of big worries like consumerism (businessman to Benjamin: “plastics”). Led by signals from the counterculture rather than any instinct for subculture, the uncontracted critic was designed for obsolescence. Compared to the ’60s work of Andy Warhol or James Rosenquist (who were editors, not critics), or to a piece like Claes Oldenburg’s 1963 vinyl-and-fake-fur Bedroom Ensemble (which always looks like a Wesselmann with a mission), Wesselmann’s paintings, for all their smooth and confident planes, were like idling breezes from the Coast. Wesselmann was the Mike Nichols of art.

This show of his recent work (eighteen paintings, two sculptures, and watercolors) marks Wesselmann’s entrance into the genteel, pleasantly defeated, and slightly stoned world of Ann Beattie. His tone is no longer cool, but in gaining proximity to his subjects he has lost a considerable amount of pictorial identity. He has become a proficient blender of techniques, and the work swerves between a diaristic photorealism and psychological film-moments like those of Alex Katz’s portraits. Frank Stella’s constructions, Rosenquist, and Oldenburg are all likely sources. Wesselmann still paints female nudes, and they are joined here by a series of mildly fetishistic still lifes. His human subjects, for the most part, now have the full complement of facial features, and furthermore come with implicit domestic scenarios. Several have first names (Pat Nude with Blue Pillow, Barbara and Baby) and are depicted in specific, homey surroundings, often next to side tables bearing the framed pictures of other people, flowers in vases, or little personal artifacts like perfume bottles. They seem to be the artist’s circle of acquaintances—friends, girlfriends of friends, wives, or mothers. Were it not for their sweetly telling bikini tan-lines, they might be taken for a nice-looking group of Sunday nudist-campers. Of the portraits the best were the charmingly art-historical Barbara and Baby, loosely patterned after a tondo madonna by Raphael (drapery included), and Brown Eyes Under Glass, a from-the-shoulders-up closeup of a blonde, dreamily myopic woman whose black bra strap coupled with a blue ribbon choker and serious glasses suggest some of the fun of a Judy Holliday movie. Wesselmann’s smaller still lifes, all of ladies’ shoes and underwear, are photorealistic. They look a lot like John Cacere’s crotch-and-panty pictures, minus the crotch. Wesselmann is particularly good at pearlized plastic sandals.

The most impressive work shown was an enormous painted construction called Still Life with Belt and Sneaker. Amplified to a scale of about 20 to 1, it is a bug’s-eye perspective of accessories that someone might leave lying on a chest of drawers on a warm day. Each component is an appropriately shaped, separate canvas; the arrangement of the canvases in space simulates depth and volume (the piece is supported and connected by rear brackets). The wit of the illusion lies in the fact that the gallery floor is transformed, true-to-scale, into the counter (by extension, the building becomes a pun on the chest of drawers), and its wall, painted a pale beach-house green, is at once the ground for a very large painting and is reduced through one’s subjective reading of the piece to a mere couple of feet in length. Wesselmann has also very deftly combined a meticulous illusionism with a rather magnanimous throwaway naturalism. In addition to the articles named in the title there is a “snapshot” panel of two similar-looking women, on which he has painted a trompe l’oeil dog-ear and thumbtack. This small vanity is balanced elsewhere in the piece by a modesty that permitted Wesselmann to paint in full a jar of face cream and a jug of flowers, despite their partial concealment from the viewer. Wesselmann has become a poet-chronicler of dresser tops, a sociologist of the walk-in closet.

Lisa Liebmann