Wesselmann loves these games with windows, doors or portals that connect licit and illicit space. The 1961 “Great American Nude No. 4” shows a naked woman lying with her legs open, exposing herself to a photographic view of a river or lake. Over her shoulder a reproduction of a portrait of George Washington looks on grimly as Wesselmann connects centuries of artsy sexual obsession to an unspoiled, inviting, likely American landscape.
In a later series of work, these portals become fundamental to the basic shape of the work. In Wesselmann’s “Drop-Out” paintings, the canvas is shaped to reflect negative space, often following the lines of a woman’s anatomy. Thus, in the 1967 “Seascape No. 24,” we see the horizon line of a green sea and a roughly triangular wedge of brilliant blue sky. If you follow the contours of the top of the painting, however, you realize that what has been “cut out” is the line of a woman’s breast, and the painting seems to be a “window” made by looking through the open space between her chest, arms and legs, as she leans over on a sandy beach. In his 1983 “Bedroom Painting No. 62,” painted on masonite and steel, the game with negative space is taken to almost abstract lengths, with two breasts clearly visible, but the rest of the work — which falls somewhere between painting and sculpture — a precariously balanced play of color and pattern against the white wall of the gallery.
Breasts are legion in Wesselmann’s work, as are plump, rouged lips that float on faces without eyes. Wesselmann was suspect to some feminist critics, especially in an earlier and urgent age of feminism when it was more difficult to see the difference between the ugly objectification of women and the innocent celebration of their beauty. Seeing Wesselmann’s work in a concentrated exhibition tends to a more lenient verdict on his sexual obsessions: He objectifies more like a fetishist than a misogynist, focusing on things — lips and other erogenous zones — that fire his imagination, but with an essentially visual rather than morbid purpose.
He does, however, return to these ideas with the tenacity of Benny Hill chasing skirts. In the 1987 “Quick Sketch from the Train (Italy) No. 2,” a rapidly made drawing of the Italian landscape has been converted into a thin lattice of cut and painted steel, as if the artist had drawn directly on the wall with strokes of colored metal. Is it an accident that the sculpture/painting is shaped a bit like a bikini triangle and that the roughly and rapidly drawn lines, now rendered in metal, suggest wiry hair?
More important, more brilliant, is the way the work draws you back to fundamental questions about art and coherence. The metal work in “Quick Sketch” looks very delicate on the wall, leaving one almost in awe that it holds together in one piece. But the best drawings also leave one a bit in awe, at how a few, faint scribblings of ink or graphite cohere into a believable image. But once the image is registered by the mind, it is impossible to “unsee” it. And once a mind has conceived of sex and its pleasures, a lifetime of focused looking and searching and enjoying inevitably ensues. Sexual desire and visual virtuosity are obviously deeply entangled in Wesselmann’s art.