Tom Wesselmann (1931–2004) may not be the best known American Pop artist. His Great American Nude series, begun in 1961, had the dubious distinction of inciting both feminists (objectifying the female body!) and dermatologists (reckless depiction of tan lines!). From the 1970s onward, his affinity for voluptuous, red-lacquered lips wreathed in cigarette smoke, manicured hands holding smoldering cigarettes (see Smoker #9 below, Crystal Bridges Museum), and graphic bedroom scenes opened him up to tart accusations of sexual exploitation and perhaps questionable taste. But his earlier works from the 1960s in mixed media explored an arguably richer imaginative world.
Collage as an artform was popularized by Picasso and Matisse who in the early twentieth century introduced such materials as sand, newsprint, and cut paper into their art. In the 1920s and 30s, Max Ernst reassembled Victorian imagery into disturbing scenes of surrealist mayhem. Kurt Schwitters used the collage in the 1920s–40s as a sort of urban documentary, incorporating tickets, receipts, candy wrappers, and assorted street debris into his pieces. Around this same time, German artists such as John Heartfield and Hannah Hoch began assembling magazines and newspapers photographs into photo-montages aimed at deflating the pomposities of Hitler and the Nazi party. Whether as frottage, grattage, or other techniques utilizing found objects and chance manipulation, collage has had an enduring appeal for its accessibility and seemingly limitless capacity for creating meaning.
In Wesselmann’s collages, we are treated to a high energy snapshot of modern American life that jumbles together food, drink, tobacco, and alcohol advertising together with Woolworth-grade reproductions of Warhol, Renoir, or Mondrian. Even in the 1960s, the mix of high and low art no longer shocked the way it once did and Wesselmann must have known that. His collages instead dissect American identity through its proclivity for overstimulation—in media and advertising, in our susceptibility to bold colors, in our love of grand scale, and in our thrall to sweeping ideas like patriotism or pursuing the American dream (you can almost hear Wesselmann adding “whatever that is”). Continue reading
. . . . . . . .