I only recently discovered the American artist Tom Wesselmann when a friend showed me a study for one of the Great American Nudes. Spellbound I took in the monstrous female nude splayed across the page – as if one of Picasso’s pink period girls had stumbled into a comic book strip unwittingly. But Wesselmann is hugely misunderstood. Far from objectifying the female body, Wesselmann was a revolutionary Pop artist that the British public (in particular) has not made enough fuss of.
By now we are all used to the Pop Art aesthetic of those lurid advertising images which Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein plastered across our collective consciousness. Wesselmann was fully involved in the conversation taking place in New York in the 1950s and 60s, but took a slightly different slant on the whole affair. Placing the female body back into this world of commercial goods, many assume that Wesselmann was sexist and derogative, but the gentle-mannered Ohio boy would have been horrified by that interpretation. We can really understand the troubles by looking at the equally divisive British artist Allen Jones. But while Jones was turning heads by transforming women into tables, Wesselmann saw the female as form, breaking the body down into breasts, hands, feet and limbs. As his Abstract Expressionist heroes like Willem de Kooning tackled form in a lyrical, expressive new standard of painting, Wesselmann went against the tide and clung on to the cliffs of figurative art.
Blue-chip giant David Zwirner’s take on the American artist is equally bold by tackling the early collages which Wesselmann was toying with when he finished Cooper Union School of Art and was struggling to make ends meat on the streets of New York. These spectacular small works are innovatively woven together from influences across art history: from Bonnard’s interiors to Picasso’s cubist table tops. The palette of vibrant colour points towards Wesselmann’s understanding of Matisse and the Fauves, but the construction is pure Modernism and makes use of the detritus that surrounded him to create a fascinating web of meaning. The American flag with its stars and stripes is nimbly pieced together in stickers and textured material, while portraits of Rembrandt and the Mona Lisa stare down at young women who stare aimlessly at cutouts of flowers and fruit bowls.
As a spotlight on the early career of this pivotal Pop artist, David Zwirner has provided a great place for us all to start our long over due love affair with Wesselmann.