Tom Wesselmann

Not enough attention is paid to Tom Wesselmann. This is probably due in part to the prevailing tendency to judge artists mainly by the work through which they first became widely known: Wesselmann’s series “Great American Nudes,” 1961–73, includes some fine paintings, but the works are not among the strongest or most radical examples of early Pop, and their sexual politics seems dated and naive—not as crass as Mel Ramos’s paintings, certainly, but also lacking the acute eye for male anxiety that gives some of John Wesley’s their impact and resonance.

Furthermore, the technique Wesselmann began developing in the mid-1980s to transform his drawings into cut steel undoubtedly seemed gimmicky to some observers. Two decades ago, the idea that painting could be mediated by computer technology was alien. How many viewers could see the point of materializing a sequence of colored marks as a metal object, or of detaching the artist’s handwriting from the original manual gesture? As shown in the journals and letters usefully excerpted in the catalogue for this revealing exhibition, “Journeys into the Landscape,” Wesselmann was concerned about this from the start, worrying that “my works could be seen as little more than computer printouts,” as merely drawings reproduced in steel rather than as drawings in steel—that is, as ones developed specifically for this new medium, which did not yet exist when the artist conceived of it and required considerable trial and error to perfect.

Today, however, the idea of technologizing painting does not seem so far-fetched, and viewers are accustomed to computer mediation in the artmaking process. We can now see Wesselmann’s laser-cut works for what they are, namely, a brilliant synthesis of analytical intelligence and visceral color. That he kicked off this phase of his work with landscape imagery only adds to its brilliance. These must be some of the most denaturalized landscapes ever pictured. The scribbly notational style of mark making that Wesselmann employs in these rural and suburban scenes of houses and roads and trees captures all the keenness and spontaneity that rigorously schooled perception can allow itself, yet these perceptions are immediately stylized, abstracted, and estranged by the material in which they are embodied—fixed and obdurate rather than fluid and yielding. This becomes patent when, as is most often the case, the steel “drawings” are composed without a framing outline. The outlines, where present, function to physically unify configurations that could otherwise not be supported by the single pieces of steel, but this unity is achieved at the cost of a more conventional sense of pictorial containment and distance. Without an outline, Wesselmann’s jagged calligraphy attacks the white expanse of the wall, and therefore the real space of the room, with unconstrained vigor.

In one of his journal entries, Wesselmann boasts that he has developed “an unusual example of the primacy of drawing in painting. The drawing doesn’t just support the painting, it is the painting,” but he goes on to admit to himself that as a solution to the problem of the relation between drawing and painting, a crux of Abstract Expressionism, his is not as radical (or, as he puts it, as “pure”) as Jackson Pollock’s was. That’s undoubtedly the case—and yet it was a solution that allowed for tremendous intensity of expression. If only we could reconceive of Wesselmann as an artist of the ’80s rather than of the ’60s, he’d loom much larger in the landscape of contemporary art.

Barry Schwabsky