The legacy of Pop Art is going through a productive period of intellectual churn, as museums, scholars and audiences reconsider the history of the Brillo Box, Ben-Day dot and Campbell’s Tomato Soup can. What once seemed a cheeky and anarchic movement is now seen as a more complicated and intellectually robust chapter in 20th-century art, not so much because history is being rewritten but because lazy habits of forgetting and pigeonholing are at last giving way to dispassionate scholarship.
Last year, the National Gallery of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago hosted a major retrospective of Roy Lichtenstein, and in 2011 the National Gallery and the Hirshhorn Museum focused on Andy Warhol. Two current exhibitions, one at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and another at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, are processing the accomplishments of Claes Oldenburg and Tom Wesselmann, respectively.
The Wesselmann exhibition in Richmond is a stunner, giving visitors a much deeper sense of an artist who is remembered primarily for a series of Pop nudes he did in the 1960s. But Wesselmann, who died in 2004, kept working long after his “Great American Nudes” brought cheesy Americana and consumer culture into the delightfully dissonant two-dimensional boudoirs of Matisse. The exhibition not only reminds one how good the early work was, it also connects it to later chapters, each one emerging organically out of the visual preoccupations of what came before.
Wesselmann always resisted the Pop label, which he felt focused viewers too much on the subject matter rather than the purely visual delight of his work. It’s clear that this wasn’t mere posturing or knee-jerk label aversion. Wesselmann was indeed a supremely visual artist, immensely talented at drawing and design, with nothing left to chance.
If his later work is remembered, especially the smoking-mouth paintings — a disembodied pair of luscious lips wafting wisps of suggestive cigarette smoke — it conjures a hard-edged, hyper-sensual, almost industrially perfect aesthetic. But these works are now seen side-by-side with drawings and sketches of the same material, and in the larger context of Wesselmann’s visual obsessions (sex was right up there). And you immediately realize that although his art may often look like it was stamped out of an industrial machine, with the repetitious perfection of a corporate logo, that was merely illusion. Signs of Wesselmann’s hand, his humor and his pursuit of art as a linear process of ongoing discovery are everywhere.
After he emerged from art school, his early works were collages, made under the shadow of admiration for Willem de Kooning. Representational elements occasionally intrude, with a rough figure drawing or a photographic or historical image pasted in. But even in these early, tentative works, there is a canny sense of space and depth implied through careful layering and small illusionist tricks. In the 1960 “Portrait Collage No. 19,” a woman broods at a table with tomatoes and a lemon. A door opens to a bathroom behind her, while she seems to ponder a portrait of an elegant woman. This is mostly built up from scraps of colored paper and material, but it is filled with axes of visual tension, the most powerful of which is the view into the bath with its old-fashioned white tub.
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.
Appetite and pleasure are very much at the center of the Oldenburg exhibition at MOMA. Rather than a career retrospective, “Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties” focuses on the seminal and shocking early work of the artist, in particular two projects — The Street and The Store — in which crudely made simulacra of ordinary objects focused on the grit of urban life and the tawdriness of commerce. The Street was dark and phantasmagorical, an immersive theatrical world made up of scraps and shavings of the city, with the raw, violent edge of graffiti. The Store gathered together colorful sculpture of everyday objects — dresses, cigarette packs, food — made from plaster-soaked fabric tarted up with sloppy lashings of brightly colored paint. Both projects were conceptual and included performances and happenings.
Any single work from these two projects will seem merely crude, a joke, a simple passing off as art of something found in the world of trash and cheap commodities. But to see many of them gathered again into a gallery is to hear a primal cry against capitalism and its discontents. “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical,” Oldenburg wrote in 1961, in a famous manifesto that continued: “I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.”
It’s striking that “political” is the first of the three essential elements in Oldenburg’s triad and that it leads through erotic passion to the mystical. “Claes Oldenburg: The Sixties” reanimates the political in our memory of the artist’s work, which all too often has taken the form of glib public sculpture that is more about personal branding than message or substance.
Both Wesselmann and Oldenburg directly confront the world of commodities and our fetishistic desire for them in American life. Wesselmann does it by showing us how the magic works, how advertising makes things beautiful, how light glints off the voluptuous sundries that marketers are hawking. In the oversize 1973 “Still Life No. 60,” the viewer can walk up and almost into a gathering of painted forms — lipstick, nail polish, sunglass, a ring — that are carefully reproduced on separate canvas panels, with a brilliant sheen, as if the photographer’s flash had just that moment gone off, giving each object its perfect moment of desirability.
In Oldenburg’s work from the 1960s, one can not only walk into a “store” filled with commodities, one also encounters giant floor sculptures, made of fabric, depicting cake, a burger and an ice cream cone. The scale is similar to Wesselmann’s glistening, free-standing still life, but the impact is very different. Wesselmann unmasks the theatrical spectacle that inflames our desire for things, while Oldenburg makes the desire itself seem all too real and present in the room, misshapen and misdirected and faintly disgusting.
Both exhibitions directly challenge an early verdict on Pop from critic Dore Ashton: “The attitude of the pop artist is diffident. He doesn’t aspire to interpret or re-present, but only to present.” In fact, nothing seems diffident in Wesselmann’s oeuvre, and certainly nothing is diffident in Oldenburg’s work from the ’60s. They were very different artists, but certainly at this moment, in the 1960s, both were passionately engaged with dissecting American visual culture and creating a new American art that rested on the foundation of centuries of antecedent genius.
“Claes Oldenburg: The 1960s” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through Aug. 5. “Pop Art and Beyond: Tom Wesselmann” is on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond through July 28. For more information, visit www.vmfa.state.va.us and www.moma.org.