Tom Wesselmann at David Zwirner
January 31 2016
Opening this week at the David Zwirner gallery in London is an exhibition of the lesser known early work of artist Tom Wesselmann. The exhibition features collages and paintings from the period from 1959 to 1964, the very beginning of Wesselmann’s career. On display is a much softer side of an artist who would rise to fame in the later half of the sixties with still lives and nudes the size of billboards.
1959 marks the last year of Wesselmann’s studies at the prestigious Cooper Union in New York City. The Cincinnati native picked up illustration while serving in Korea, and after earning his undergraduate degree in Psychology, he decided to pursue cartooning as a proper career. History, however, would have different plans for the young artist. As Claire, a fellow student, frequent model, and his future wife said, “New York lit him on fire”. By the time Wesselmann arrived in the city, a tectonic shift had already been set in motion. For the better part of a decade, the Abstract Expressionists had been deviating the attention of the art world from the old capitals of culture in Europe to the energetic, post-war America. An ardent admirer of the work of his contemporaries, it was in reaction to the work of the Abstract Expressionists that Wesselmann began to create the collages on show in this recent exhibition. As he would say in regards to the collages, “I felt that I’d done something of my own”. It is this work that would originally catch the eye of some of his fellow artists, including Jimmy Dine, who proclaimed to Wesselmann, in no uncertain terms, “You may be one of America’s great painters”.
It’s a bit daft to say that the work on view is from a ‘transitionary period’ of Wesselmann’s work – every period of an artists work can be seen as a transition. The collage work that Wesselmann is creating in this period, however, shows a distinct evolution of thought in the young artist. The bold color and anti-gestural line of collage would soon become familiar aspects of his work. The female nude, a notable subject even of these early pieces, was out of fashion at the time he began working in collage. As he would say in regards to his contemporaries, “They worked abstract; I’d work figurative … I deliberately wanted to work figurative because it was the one mode that I so scorned”. It wasn’t long after these works that Wesselmann would become known for his series The Great American Nude, in which echos of these early figurative studies can be seen. Wesselmann would continue working in collage well into his career, but as with most of his work, the scale of the pieces would become momentous. Billboards would become the source material and scale of reference of his later collages, thanks in large part to a friendly relationship with major companies who would give him their discarded billboard prints, a relationship that seems improbable today. It was a scale that took the common still life and nude out of it’s familiar, life sized context, and really made it something to consider. Even now these pieces seem new, and fresh to eyes all too familiar with the pop-art aesthetic which would become the movement Wesselmann was often lumped into, along with his contemporaries Warhol and Lichtenstein.
The sophistication of his later work would separate the nude from the inherent sexuality of the subject, but these early collages let on to the much more human-scale interests. While he would become known for his graphic and colorful Pop Art aesthetic, these early explorations illuminate Wesselmann’s throughly un-Pop fascination with the figure.