Tom Wesselmann and Pop Art - they seem to go together almost without thought. His art, however, was born out of a struggle to overcome the emotional and aesthetic weight of the Abstract Expressionist movement that was New York in the late 1950's. Wesselmann began his artistic career in the footpath of Willem de Kooning, but very soon removed himself from the "poetry" of the "AbEx" movement. By 1959, he was making use of collage and realistic imagery to create a brand new, and fresh, way of painting the picture plane.
Wesselmann's earliest works employed commonly used everyday imagery which he quite literally glued onto his works. With a combination of his own painting and these manufactured images, his unique style began to emerge. Working simultaneously with Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Wesselmann nevertheless had a singular vision. Unlike Oldenburg, Wesselmann's one-wall interiors, peopled by figures and still-lifes, are not three-dimensional environments, nor are they Duchampian constructs that collage together disparate and unrelated elements from real life as in Robert Rauschenberg's work. Rather Wesselmann maintained a core sensibility for the picture plane and incorporated specific elements precisely because they are the details of the world we live in.
In the early sixties, Pop artists such as Jim Dine and Jasper Johns were using everyday imagery in their works in a poetic gesture to 're-invent' their mundane meanings. In his own work, Wesselmann instead sought to use everyday items in their own, realistic context. His works were not about social commentary, like the Happenings of Oldenburg or the consumer based advertisement paintings of Warhol were, but rather about American life. Wesselmann commented that "I used what was around me, so my culture was what I used. But I didn't use it for cultural reasons, it was not a cultural comment." (Thomas Buchsteiner and Otto Letze, Tom Wesselmann, Stuttgart, 1996, p. 13) And although Wesselmann was included in the first International Pop exhibition, The New Realists in 1962 at the Sidney Janis Gallery, like many of his fellow Pop artists, he was often uncomfortable with the label and the rigid parameters set for Pop art by some of the critics and public alike.
Within this modernist space of color, line and spatial compression, Wesselmann's nude becomes a de-personalized sex symbol set in a realistically depicted and commonplace environment. Exhibiting the sinuous contours of flesh reminiscent of Henri Matisse, Wesselmann's nude takes a historically intimate and personal icon and turns it into the ultimate object of artistic desire. The central nude in Little Bathtub Collage #4 exists in quiet contour, almost a grace note that contrasts with the red, white and contouring grey toned colors, illusionist collages, and printed backdrops that are incongruously flat and stylized. Details of individual identity are expunged, leaving a figure in welcoming open stance to the viewer, as tokens of erotic invitation. By default, an anonymous presence rather than a portrait, the central figure of the present work, is the ultimate symbol of the painting, quietly inviting our contemplation with more force than the borrowed images of art history, national identity and consumerism seen in his later series.
The radiant composition, with the red and white flowered wallpaper reminiscent of Matisse, red and white striped bath towels, bright red bathrobe tossed seductively over a chair and period sink, bathtub and "subway tile" flooring has the immediacy of a snapshot, adding a feeling of voyeurism to our gaze. With this marriage of the real with the depicted, Wesselmann blurred the boundaries between the represented and the representation in a novel way. As Lucy Lippard has noted, ``Wesselmann likes the `reverberations' between painted and collaged images, art history and advertising, trompe-l'oeil and reality.'' (Lucy Lippard, Pop Art, New York, 1967, p. 112)
Wesselmann paints the intimate in the language of the private, his choice of colors irresistibly drawing our gaze into a world of easy sensuality and pleasurable gratification. He reinterprets the tradition of the nude, from Titian's Venus to Manet's Olympia, to reflect the tastes and expectations of the American public of his day. As Stealingworth notes, "In his earlier works the edges were pressed against, and used to make the painting extend beyond, or refer back into itself, and used to compress the painting. In the simpler still lives [or interior scenes] the edges became more arbitrary, and they simply define the limits of the image. Instead of a painting being dominated by itself, it is now dominated by its subject matter elements." (Slim Stealingworth, Tom Wesselmann, New York, 1980, p. 42)
Wesselmann clearly manufactured potent microcosms that combined the real with the represented and utilized the seduction of everyday objects to underscore the timeless seduction of the female figure. His constructive brilliance in many ways lies within his tendency to arrange compositions without a central image or focus, instead distributing the still life objects equally across the surface of the picture, or round form of the present painting, as if a precisely informed and reflective bathroom mirror. There is a marvelous abstract formal order to this series of six small Little Bathtub Collages, all done in 1960 (and followed by larger sized versions executed in 1963 and 1964). Whatever personal feelings or emotions Wesselmann may have harbored toward the objects or figures he was depicting (in this work, his future wife, Claire), it is much less important than how he composed the defined objects into a cohesive whole, that of the intimate and utterly personal, Little Bathtub Collag #4.
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