Home » Tom Wesselmann- The Realist
Tom Wesselmann is often ignored in all the hype around his contemporary, the movement’s iconic superstar, Andy Warhol. But the American painter, collagist and sculptor was an integral part of the gang of five hardcore pop artists who dominated the New York art scene during the sixties, the other being Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist and Oldenburg. The ex-army man’s artistic career took of concurrently with those of Warhol and Lichtenstein, and the trio came to represent the powerful axis of new realism that was growing across America and Europe.
However, Wesselmann was probably the most un-pop of his peers, in his art-making approach as well as the content of his work. While Warhol’s paintings of Campbell soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles were a critique of consumerism, Wesselmann simply used everyday objects as a point of aesthetic inspiration. He believed that the point of his work was transmuting the mundane physicality of an object in to art. And so Wesselmann’s images of a telephone, a bottle of mail polish or a pair of disembodied red lips took on a life of their own and left behind their functional origins.
Aware of this fundamental difference, Wesselmann was uncomfortable about being clubbed along with the other pop artist of his time “I dislike labels in general and ‘ pop in particular,” he explained, “especially because it over-emphasises the material used. There dose seem to be a tendency to use similar materials and images, but the different ways they are used denies any kind of group intention.”
Instead of subjective, abstract reality, Wesselmann chose to create art in the vibrant intersection of everyday life with popular culture By 1961, Wesselmann had broken new ground with his seminal series, The Great American Nude, which wove a striking narrative around quintessentially American symbols and images (like the country’s landscape and founding fathers) in patriotic colours like gold, khaki, red, blue and white.
“Painting, sex, and humour are the most important things in my life,” said Wesselmann, and he tried to incorporate all these in his art. His signature aesthetic combined the colours and dimensions of billboard ads with casually erotic images of female body parts. A trademark technique was extreme close-ups _ of painted toenails among a bunch of flowers, a giant pair of lips or fingers provocatively clutching a cigarette, floating in empty space. Over the next few years, Wesselmann created large-scale work depicting sexually explicit female nudes and various still life assemblages.
His juxtapositions were curious _ a cigarette from an ad against a painted apple or a turned-on TV set, on a table with fruits and flower. For Wesselmann, these contrasting elements represented a collision between different realities, creating an energy that transcended the’ still life’ quality of the objects.
Most of his works have a three dimensional quality to them, often crisscrossing the line between sculpture and painting. Cut-outs actual objects mounted onto paintings, painted metal scarps blended with brush strokes and painted plexiglass figures_ all these regularly featured in Wesselmann’s later works.
– Rajita Gadagkar