My first encounter with Tom Wesselman's work occurred when I visited the Art Museum in his native Cincinnati. There, i was exposed to one of his tamer subjects, a piece that depicted a giant woman's foot against a seascape. What caught my attention was the size and attention to certain details, as well as the object-ness of the piece. Wesselman's foot was a painted piece of cut steel, and the slick application of vivid color gave me a sense that this man was communicating something other than a simple observation of a foot. Upon later investigation, these suspicions were confirmed. Wesselman's dramatic, in-your-face imagery is a combination of American pop-art reactions, erotic shock value, and a blurring of the lines between what is art and what is life.
Through Wesselman is often associated with the American Pop-art movement, he personally denied this classification, stating that, "I was a Pop artist to the extent that I deliberately chose American Imagery... But I didn't use it for cultural reasons, it was not a cultural comment." Despite his protestations, I feel that despite their lack of commentary, his work does reflex American cultural values. His series of highly eroticized Great American Nudes invokes a definite atmosphere of what ideals are the undercurrents of American society. In his piece, Great American nude #48, this ideal-erotic imagery is paired with a definite blurring of what is reality and what is the fantasy. In this piece, Wasselman combines a highly graphic voyeuristic glimpse into the world of his woman. Again, this idea is repeated in one of his better know images, Bathtub College #3. Illusion and actual objects are mixed, closing the gap between the real and the imagined. I am attracted to this blurring.
Wesselman's pieces also cross the border between sculpture and painting. His assemblage's purpose is communicated in his use of materials as well. By incorporating real objects with his graphic images, the viewer is lead not only to question reality, but to question the nature of the piece itself-- how much of this work is art, how much is frame? Where does the line between the viewer and the painted woman cross? The incorporation of interactive objects in these installations, like radios and tv's, dare the viewer to alter the piece. These ideas of interaction and questioning artist intent intrigue me. Wesselman's work in especially enjoyable when one no longer knows where the art ends and the space we inhabit begins.
I am usually not attracted to highly graphic images like Wesselman's, but his subject matter for this style is unusual, and demands attention. In his series of Bedroom Paintings , he approaches a highly sexualized, intimate scene in a very straightforward, aggressive manner. In these pieces, Wesselman usually narrows in on a single part of the female body-- a nipple, a foot, a knee-- and incorporates into this scene ambiguous details of locale. I am again attracted to the objectivity of these works. In Bedroom painting #60, the viewer is again left questioning what is the art and what is the frame. This piece is made of cut steel and painted in oils. By leaving the negative space in the shape of what would usually be depicted as the positive female figure, Wesselman's sculpture uses it1s 3-demensional quality to recall the illusion of 2-demensional work. Is the cut out space in the metal part of the work? Are we supposed to pay attention to the details of background included, or the negative space in the shape of a woman? Again, I appreciate this unique illusion Wesselman presents.
Wesselman's eroticism is almost clinical in it1s depiction. I enjoy his detachment from his subject matter. Wesselman says he uses the sexuality of his pieces to draw attention, more than to give an opinion on the nature of these women. Some might critique Wesselman for objectifying women. I feel that this is the point of these images-- these women are object of their culture, and are used for communicative purposes. The women are depicted objectifying themselves. The Details such as glossy lips and stark tan-lines communicate what is attractive, what these women put themselves through in order to be objects of desire.By depicting them as matte against their surroundings, unreal images among real objects, Wesselman again challenges our illusion of what is idealized and what can be believed. American culture communicates in illusion, and in the use of these female images, Wesselman is merely communicating in the language of his culture.
These issues of illusion in material, content, and space are what most attracts me to his work. I feel that he communicates very clearly what his intentions were, so that not a great deal of research must be done to understand his references. They are the language of his culture. His objects and installations clearly blur the lines between the real and unreal, which is a factor I hope to achieve in my own pieces. His bold use of the female form opens a doorway not only to the nature of women in the eyes of culture, but in their own eyes. I enjoy pieces that deal with the struggles of women in our culture, and while Wesselman does not deal with the problem, i feel he illustrates it very well. My favorite aspect of his work is the paradox of ideal/graphic and the real world, in either reference to women or in the nature of art. itself.