A Review of Tom Wesselmann at Almine Rech Gallery, London
Almine Rech Gallery presents a provocative, uplifting survey of work made in the final years of Tom Wesselmann’s life. Large-scale Sunset Nudes (2002–4), are paired with painted aluminium wall assemblages dating from the same period, their maquettes on public display here for the first time.
Whether or not Wesselmann chose Sunset Nudes as a tongue-in-cheek metaphor for the sun setting on his own life, this exhibition looks at an intensely creative, prolific period. Several motifs from his early collages resurface, suggesting that Wesselmann entered a self-reflective mood casting a retrospective eye over his career in his final years, leading to a mature style and cohesive approach visible in this exhibition.
Tom Wesselmann was born in 1931 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Despite resistance he is known as a leading figure of the American ‘pop art’ scene in 1960s New York, and was supported by mega-gallerists such as Sidney Janis and Ileana Sonnabend. After he graduated in fine art from Cooper Union, New York in 1959, he began to exhibit alongside the likes of Jim Dine, Alex Katz and Claes Oldenburg. Although the young Wesselmann idolised Willem De Kooning, he and his contemporaries moved away from the abstract expressionism which had possessed New York since the early 1950s. It felt too dreary for these impoverished young twenty-somethings more interested in happenings, soft sculpture and large-scale installations.
Wesselmann’s generation witnessed the explosion of mass media and advertising, which, combined with the doubled-edged sword of women’s sexual liberation, saw the female body occupying the same visual platform as a pack of cigarettes or Wrigley’s chewing gum. So when gazing at the puckered nipples, provocative poses and abstracted forms of the ‘sunset nudes’, it undoubtedly raises the question of the ‘male gaze’, but I think it is worth considering that they were made with self-conscious and ironic intention.
Hanging alone on the furthest wall of the exhibition, ‘Sunset Nude with Matisse Odalisque’ (2003) borrows the patterned interiors, bold outlines, and flattened appearance typical of Henri Matisse. Wesselmann first came across the work of Matisse around the time art critic Clement Greenberg published his book on the artist in 1953, and quickly became an avid admirer of how Matisse handled colour and form with bold simplicity. It is interesting to compare this impressive work made the year before the artist’s death, with one of his early collages made over forty years before, ‘Judy Trimming Toenails, Yellow Wall’ (1960), and to notice how the artist is dealing with his own legacy in the context of an earlier painter of female nudes.
Already familiar with Wesselmann’s nudes for which he is most recognised, I was drawn to his less well-known hanging wall assemblages which are laser-cut from aluminium. The coloured strips and rounded volumes of metal sheets are laid over folded, zig-zagging white bases; their stark abstraction seems to reference Piet Mondrian or Theos van Doesburg, those die-hard geometric abstractionists of early 20th Century Europe who promoted the dehumanisation of art, architecture and design. But the sea blue, flesh pink and daffodil yellow tempts comparison with its two-dimensional neighbours.
Standing between ‘Seven Up Beauty’ (2003, oil on cut-out aluminium) and ‘Sunset Nude with Palm Trees’ (2003, oil on canvas), the wall assemblage highlights the compositional depth of the flattened oil painting, while the painting enlivens the otherwise non-referential abstract wall sculpture. Looking at the assemblage, the eye slowly begins to pick out recognisable shapes: the bend of a lifted elbow, the silhouette of a jagged palm leaf.
On the ground floor, representational painting and abstract assemblage are juxtaposed alternately, their placement complementing the compositional depth and ebullient colour palette mirrored in each other. The sequential placement of ‘abstract-figurative-abstract-figurative’ is a curatorial reference to Wesselmann’s last living solo exhibition, Nudes and Abstracts at the Robert Miller Gallery in 2003.
Wesselmann designed the exhibition advertisement in a downstairs vitrine, which captures the essence of how the artistic channels of abstraction and figuration he pursued were unexpectedly harmonious. The hard division between the two seems to be a hangover from the interwar period, but the curation of this exhibition realises how Wesselmann’s late work blurs the lines between representational and non-representational.
The real crux of the show is the installation ‘Exhibition Detail’ (2003–4), never before exhibited and completed the year Wesselmann died. It is a stage set mimicking the physical corner of his studio, where he elected to hang scaled-down versions of the kind of paintings and assemblages exhibited in the 2003 Robert Miller show, and in this very exhibition. It condenses several elements of Wesselmann’s practice into one object, highlighting the creation of layered realities using mise en abyme, and questioning the historical boundary between abstraction and figuration. As John Wilmerding once observed, ‘it is one last reminder of how integrated and internally coherent’ Wesselmann’s art was, making this show well worth a look.
Written by Miranda Chance, a Contributor to Arteviste