Placing an exhibition of Tom Wesselmann's drawings in the Kreeger Museum seems as logical as placing a smart phone with touch screen in a museum dedicated to the rotary phone. Wesselmann's "Pop Art" is out of place in the same building that houses a collection of late 19th Century and early 20th Century European masterpieces. Or, is it? Jessica Dawson's review of the show on April 22 asked one major question, "how Pop was he, really?" Though she lets us decide for ourselves, she did note that, "Wesselmann owed more to Matisse than to the 1960s avant-garde." (Note: Roy Lichtenstein was also fascinated by Matisse.) In the context of the exhibition on display, the relationship between Wesselmann and the 19th Century European Avant Garde is probably closer than we might consider, and Wesselmann is revealed as the artist of still life and nudes that he had always been.
How did Wesselmann become a Pop Artist? Better still, how did many of the artists we identify as "Pop" become Pop Artists? In 1962 and 63, when exhibitions of new, often American art (mostly painting), were organized in LA, New York, and DC, curators and organizers summarized what they saw with descriptive titles like "New Painting of Common Objects" (Pasadena Museum of Art), "New Realists" (Sidney Janis Gallery), "Six Painters and the Object" (Guggenheim Museum), and "The Popular Image" (Washington Gallery of Modern Art). All were significant exhibitions that included some artists we continually label as Pop Artists: George Segal, Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Watts, Jim Dine, and Jim Rosenquist, to name a few. However, like Wesselmann, Segal, Thiebaud, and Watts showed a greater commitment to interests other than Pop: genre, still life, and Fluxus (respectively). Jim Dine could also be considered to have a greater interest in still life than to Pop, and would probably find a better fit in the quasi-category of Neo-Dada with Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns (artists who were also included in the seminal shows of Pop, who also hated the label of Pop, and probably also hate the label Neo-Dada). Even Jim Rosenquist in his recent autobiography fights the label of Pop artist. As Donald Judd noted early in 1963 the "various artists are too diverse to be given one label..."
Unfortunately, one label stuck, and that label was Pop Art. Alan Solomon also recognized the limitations of the so-called movement's title, and in his essay "The New Art," (first published as the catalog essay for "The Popular Image" at The Washington Gallery of Modern Art), "Like all vital new movements in the modern period… it has quickly been assigned a pejorative title – or string of titles, in this case … emphasizing the wrong attributes of the style." Wesselmann gets lumped into Pop Art because, amongst other things, he wasn't bashful about collaging elements from billboards into a composition that reflected what should be a contemporary still life: a hoagie, a pack of Pall Malls, and a can of Budweiser. So to look at Wesselmann at the Kreeger, it is necessary to remove that rubbish Pop Art label and heap it into Lawrence Alloway's dustbin, where it belongs.
"Drawing," at the Kreeger, contextualizes Wesselmann in the great tradition of reinventing Classical art traditions. In the late 1950s, when Wesselmann was studying at the Cooper Union, art students throughout the country were being trained to become the new generation of Abstract Expressionists, and it became essential for many of those artists to abandon that training in favor for something different. At the same time, it was essential not to return to old methodologies of painting. But returning to old subjects was permissible, and for Wesselmann the great challenge in his mind was to make a drawing or painting of the nude female form that was just as beautiful as the nude female he was drawing or painting. Often his subject was a model named Claire, a woman he eventually married.
Every reclined female Wesselmann painted is reminiscent of Manet's "Olympia," which in turn reference's Titian's "Venus." Neither Titian nor Manet is remotely Pop, but referencing either establishes Wesselmann's interest with art history. His relationship with art history is further cemented in several of the works on display. "Great American Nude #20" quotes Van Gogh's "Sunflowers." A study of "Judy Trying on Clothes" is reminiscent of Degas' drawings of women preparing for the bath. Matisse is also a reoccurring name in many of Wesselmann's titles.
What the exhibition does as a whole is deny Wesselmann as a painter. He seldom challenges the medium in the way that Sisley, Chagal, or Mondrian challenged painting, - works by artists you can view in the Kreeger's permanent collection, upstairs. Wesselmann's use of painting is often flat, and seems only in the service of applying color to an otherwise exquisite drawing. Color in service of the drawing is best illustrated in his later cut steel pieces like Hillside Farm, Callicoon Center, 1990, and Still Life with Fuji Chrysanthemums (double layer) 1985/92.
With these cut steel pieces we truly get a sense of what Wesselmann was attempting with his work: challenging the limitations of drawing. As Richard Serra demonstrated with lead, unless molten and fluid, you can't draw with steel. So the challenge of these later works is to maintain the sensitivity and grace of fluid line in an otherwise inflexible medium. Throughout the progression of the exhibition we see how Wesselmann challenged the notions of drawing, by denying their flat surfaces with works like Drawing Version of Bedroom Painting #24 (1973), or Drawing Maquette for Still Life #59 (1972), both of which take a series of flat drawings and stack them into sculptural compositions.
All of the work on display stresses Wesselmann's unmistakably traditional interests, as Dawson points out, but it hardly seems to be an albatross. The only Pop in the show is one of expectation: Wesselmann's label as a Pop Artist, despite how the show was promoted, is a bubble that bursts. His practice gave a breath of new life to Classical themes of still life and the nude, and it pushed the boundaries of two-dimensional surfaces. Through Wesselmann we can actually learn something about art and its history, as opposed to some mimeographed day-glow portrait of Marilyn Monroe, which teaches us more about marketing.