Tom Wesselmann (1931–2004) may not be the best known American Pop artist. His Great American Nude series, begun in 1961, had the dubious distinction of inciting both feminists (objectifying the female body!) and dermatologists (reckless depiction of tan lines!). From the 1970s onward, his affinity for voluptuous, red-lacquered lips wreathed in cigarette smoke, manicured hands holding smoldering cigarettes (such as Smoker #9 below, Crystal Bridges Museum), and graphic bedroom scenes opened him up to tart accusations of sexual exploitation and perhaps questionable taste. But his earlier works from the 1960s in mixed media explored an arguably richer imaginative world.
Collage as an artform was popularized by Picasso and Matisse who in the early twentieth century introduced such materials as sand, newsprint, and cut paper into their art. In the 1920s and 30s, Max Ernst reassembled Victorian imagery into disturbing scenes of surrealist mayhem. Kurt Schwitters used the collage in the 1920s–40s as a sort of urban documentary, incorporating tickets, receipts, candy wrappers, and assorted street debris into his pieces. Around this same time, German artists such as John Heartfield and Hannah Hoch began assembling magazines and newspapers photographs into photo-montages aimed at deflating the pomposities of Hitler and the Nazi party. Whether as frottage, grattage, or other techniques utilizing found objects and chance manipulation, collage has had an enduring appeal for its accessibility and seemingly limitless capacity for creating meaning.
In Wesselmann’s collages, we are treated to a high energy snapshot of modern American life that jumbles together food, drink, tobacco, and alcohol advertising together with Woolworth-grade reproductions of Warhol, Renoir, or Mondrian. Even in the 1960s, the mix of high and low art no longer shocked the way it once did and Wesselmann must have known that. His collages instead dissect American identity through its proclivity for overstimulation—in media and advertising, in our susceptibility to bold colors, in our love of grand scale, and in our thrall to sweeping ideas like patriotism or pursuing the American dream (you can almost hear Wesselmann adding “whatever that is”).
Wesselmann studied and admired the great Dutch still lifes of the seventeenth century in which nature’s abundance and the transience of life were depicted with virtuosity. The Pop Art take on the still life, tempered as it is by irony and wit, experiments with abundance and transience by emphasizing not natural wealth or rare talent, but the manmade, the mass produced, and the banal. Later, when Wesselman translated the two-dimensional collage on canvas into wall-sized installations that included real radiators, refrigerator doors, and toilet seats, he lost the delicate sense of play and the light touch that had animated the 1960s works.
Wesselmann’s 1962 collage, “Still Life No. 1” (top), appeared our fall issue alongside Helen Andrews’s essay “AA Envy.” It includes a strident color palette and trite advertising imagery underpinned by a composition influenced by the traditional still life and Platonic geometry. We sense echoes of a past tradition: Wesselmann dutifully supplies pears and a lemon on a white shape that suggests a classical vessel. He adds elements associated with physical pleasures: eating, drinking, and smoking. Tactile sensation comes with the lace doily and the wooden cutting board—both probably machine made, but each associated with a form of handcraft and social status. The McCall’s cover with its photograph of a mother and child is typical of the venerable homemaking magazine, but it also draws on another well-recognized motif from art history, the Madonna and Christ child.
However, the scene takes a seedier turn when we examine the upper right corner of this work. Moving from the slightly obscene, fleshy ham, our eye is drawn toward the flowery wallpaper and the pink shape on white. Wesselmann has tricked us into becoming voyeurs, glancing over the kitchen table toward what may (or may not) be a nude in the bedroom beyond.
Wesselmann’s still life is composed of items available in virtually any home in America. His technique—cutting pictures out of magazines—is practicable by even the youngest child. The composition, although complex, relies on eye-catching, solid blocks of uninflected color alternating with typography and the bold design of product labels. Merits of skill, technique, draftsmanship amount to very little when it comes to Pop Art, but the uniqueness of this particular view of reality is undeniable.
In 1963, Wesselmann spoke of the momentum created by the association of objects in his pictures: “At first glance my pictures seem well behaved, as if—that is a still life, OK. But these things have such crazy give-and-take that I feel they get really very wild.” The momentum in this collage comes not only from the overt visual clues but also from the way our minds jump from one conclusion to another. Our gaze is comforted by the trappings of domesticity and consumerism (the “well behaved”), but the longer we look at this work, the more these blandishments become dulled or even menacing.
Wesselmann’s collages and his later art, especially the faceless, stylized nudes, lead us to think about how media works in our lives and our memory. Do we prefer our images mediated, either as highly mannered reproductions (television or the movies) or curated by technology (social media and smartphones) or directly experienced? At the time of the 1960s, one could say that Wesselmann was still interested in the potential of images for enchantment (or “wildness” to paraphrase the quote above), but that later he sought to direct that interpretation more narrowly, so much so that he essentially squeezed out any capacity for wonder. What remained was the image as icon and the experience of art as idolatry.
As a critique of American culture, images such as Smoker #9 might succeed after a fashion, animated by a certain kind of political energy or even facile “magic.” But this doesn't seem to be what Wesselmann was aiming at. Rather, he sought to bring the private and the intimate into the public domain, capitalizing on scale, color, and unorthodox materials. The early collages still contained some modest capacity for wonder, however jaded it might be, but the later works became, instead of icons, mere advertisement for art that advertises itself.