Tom Wesselmann Draws

Painting/Drawing
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Editorial Review

Tom Wesselmann pops up at the Kreeger Museum

By Jessica Dawson
Friday, April 22, 2011

How pop was Tom Wesselmann, really?

If you’re the Kreeger Museum, the answer is: popper than pop. “A Pop Art icon,” even, according to the publicity accompanying Wesselmann’s drawings show on view at the Kreeger through July 30.

What else were they going to say? Institutions don’t host shows about a “lesser light of pop” or an “exuberant but conservative pop-art bench player” or an “ambiguous figure on the margins of pop who himself seemed iffy about the whole enterprise.”

Yet all of those labels apply to Wesselmann, an artist working in and around the earliest inklings of American pop that emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s and who was ultimately overshadowed by the tougher mettle of his colleagues Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg.

The signature Wesselmann is “Great American Nude,” a series he began in 1961, just two years after his art school graduation. He returned to that title again and again, serializing it with numbers — “Great American Nude #20,” “Great American Nude #100” — and producing canvases steadily through the 1970s. Wesselmann continued to turn out nudes (though under different titles) until his death in 2004 at 73.

It’s quite a franchise. The pictures’ gestalt: a woman’s torso broadly drawn, few distinguishing characteristics other than pyramidal nipples, deep bikini tan lines and a mouth straight off a Colgate ad. The artist nestled these nudes in boldly colored interiors decked out with tokens of Americana. If you can imagine a soft-core comic book issued by the U.S. government, you’ll get a visual.

At the Kreeger, studies in charcoal and pencil on paper, cut board or canvas reveal Wesselmann perfecting his kitschy subject. The pictures are exuberant and often very funny. A study drawing for nude torsos is pockmarked by nipples and breasts cantilevering at various angles as Wesselmann worked out how to render female anatomy with maximum visual velocity.

A generous take on the artist’s devotion to his subject is that these pictures were sly metaphors for post-World War II excess. His titles’ cheeky link to the legacy of the Great American Novel, that epitome of the zeitgeist, advances that theory.

Yet Wesselmann’s choice of subject complicates that read. The nude runs deep in art history, dating to the Greeks and repeated by everyone from Titian to Manet on down. But the essence of pop, as practiced by Warhol or Lichtenstein, was brasher: the shocking elevation of the everyday, the heroization of the disposable. Look around the Kreeger and you’ll see that Wesselmann owed more to Matisse than to the 1960s avant-garde.

How, then, can we hail Wesselmann as a major force in a movement that he himself only half-embraced?

If Wesselmann’s embrace of pop was half-hearted, the movement’s arbiters felt much the same about him.

Wesselmann missed out on the Pasadena Art Museum’s seminal 1962 exhibition “New Painting of Common Objects,” the first museum show of American pop art and a defining moment for the genre.

Inclusion in that Walter Hopps-curated show didn’t guarantee a place in the popular history, of course. (Joe Goode, anyone?) But in retrospect, the molten core of pop was formed here and a movement seeped from it, satirizing and celebrating the country’s consumerist mores in its wake. Warhol. Lichtenstein. Ed Ruscha. Wayne Thiebaud.

Where was Wesselmann, if not in Pasadena in the fall of 1962? His work was just a few miles away, hanging in the Los Angeles basin’s other seminal pop survey that year: “My Country ’Tis of Thee” at the Dwan Gallery in west L.A. Like Hopps, gallerist Virginia Dwan had spotted a trend and assembled a show of artists, including Oldenburg, Marisol, Lichtenstein and Warhol, that spoke to, as she saw it, a new and particularly American art movement.

At Dwan, one of Wesselmann’s early “Great American Nudes,” this one painted on a circular canvas, was sidelined in an alcove leading to the gallery’s back offices. A nude torso reclining on a sea of red and white stripes, the piece was classic Wesselmann.

But the torso’s off-axis placement seems somehow significant, offering a fitting metaphor for Wesselmann’s relationship to the larger world of pop.

Sure, he got included in the show. But he never made it into the main room.

I’ll ask it again: How pop was Wesselmann, really?

The 61-piece “Tom Wesselmann Draws” at the Kreeger offers an important opportunity to decide for yourself. (The show will also whet some appetites for the first major Wesselmann retrospective, scheduled to open at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts next spring.)

The Kreeger show covers almost every decade of the artist’s career, from his early, irrepressible nudes and still lifes to a later landscape that seems to have lost its pulse. Though the show was arranged thematically rather than chronologically, Wesselmann’s vibrant, saucy early works almost invariably stand out.

At the Kreeger, “drawing” is used in the broadest sense of that word — lines moving through space. Late in his career, Wesselmann turned increasingly to cutout works in steel and aluminum, some of which he hung flat against the wall, others protruding a few inches off of it. The best of these works — still lifes with goldfish, a few nudes (of course) — call to mind the economy of line in Alexander Calder’s great wire portraits.

Speaking of goldfish: Wesselmann’s debt to Matisse cannot be overstated. The postimpressionist appears here both in outright copies — “Still Life With Two Matisses (Portrait) (Black Variation)” from the early 1990s — and in homage (the cutouts; “Drawing for Great American Nude #20,” whose body and flowers owe major debt to Monsieur Matisse). Other studies and small drawings call to mind Degas, too.

Looking around the Kreeger, it’s obvious that Wesselmann remained married to art history throughout his long career. The union proved to be his rock — but also, perhaps, his albatross.