Will the Real Tom Wesselmann Please Stand Up?

Wesselmann’s sculpture attempted ‘to pick up a drawing by its lines and carry it’ into the world

Who is Slim Stealingworth? He wrote an 80-page essay for a Tom Wesselmann monograph in 1980. He also penned various catalogue essays for Wesselmann until 2002, two years before the American pop artist’s death. ‘Many of these earliest works began with finding a piece of wood that seemed special,’ Stealingworth notes about Wesselmann’s process. The simultaneous familiarity, anonymity and subjectivity of Stealingworth’s analyses leave an obvious answer and an open secret: Wesselmann wrote his own monograph under a pseudonym. Now will the real Slim Stealingworth please stand up?

Tom Wesselmann, Scribble Version of Still Life #58 (Opaque), 1984–91, enamel on cut-out aluminium, 147.3 × 176.5 cm. © The Estate of Tom Wesselmann/Licensed by ARS/VAGA, New York; courtesy: Gagosian; photograph: Jeffrey Sturges

The four metal floral cut-outs comprising Wesselmann’s current show at one of Gagosian’s uptown Manhattan venues, Park & 75, ‘Flowers’, were primarily constructed and painted in the 1980s and ’90s, though one work was begun in 1968 and finished in 2004. In a 2002 essay for Thomas Ammann Fine Art’s show at Art Basel 33, Stealingworth wrote that the aim of these works is to ‘pick up a drawing by its lines and carry it.’ It works. Each of the four pieces translate a two-dimensional sketch into steel, as if it were drawn on the wall with a metal crayon. Coloured with enamel or oil paint, the flowers in vases, cigarettes and perfume bottles are described through steel contour. Scribble Version of Still Life #58 (Opaque) (1984–91) exemplifies Wesselmann’s strategy to bring line work to sculpture. The cerulean background scrapes over the smoke from a resting cigarette, a rose petal, a perfume bottle. The sculpture’s vibrant colours and flatness don’t just transform the sketches upon which they are based, they deceive you.

Tom Wesselmann, ‘Flowers’, 2019, exhibition view. © The Estate of Tom Wesselmann/Licensed by ARS/VAGA, New York; courtesy: Gagosian; photograph: Rob McKeever

To stage this magic trick, Park & 75 has lined their floor with AstroTurf, emphasizing the falsehood of these flowers with a lush lawn while also creating the illusion of reality. The grass is thick, rustling underneath the Upper East Side foot traffic. It contrasts with the flowers, all of which sit in vases and occupy indoor landscapes, and gives Wesselmann’s bouquet of colours a run for their money.

Tom Wesselmann, ‘Flowers’, 2019, exhibition view. © The Estate of Tom Wesselmann/Licensed by ARS/VAGA, New York; courtesy: Gagosian; photograph: Rob McKeever

The relationship between Tom Wesselmann and Slim Stealingworth is akin to that of these steel sculptures and the sketches they mimic. The works might seem like cheap, grandiose attempts to trick those around them, impermanent entities trying to self-aggrandise and grasping at a chance – however slim – to stay on the walls longer. An 80-page monograph and a six-foot-tall steel sculpture, they weigh the same.

Tom Wesselmann, Mixed Bouquet (Filled In), 1993, oil on cut-out aluminium, 188 × 132.1 × 19.1 cm. © The Estate of Tom Wesselmann/Licensed by ARS/VAGA, New York; courtesy: Gagosian; photograph: Jeffrey Sturges

Wesselmann crafted Stealingworth much like these sculptures. His essays strive to be even-handed, even deprecating at times, but all together allow the artist to step outside himself – and around his own name. To pick up whatever line he was drawing and carry it around as a trusted third party, to experience a separation in place of a representation. Stealingworth’s 1980 monograph ends: ‘Wesselmann regards himself, and I agree, as not being in any specific artistic category. He is part of the broad and diverse world of figurative painters, in his version dealing less with the real world than with a theoretically real world.’

Tom Wesselmann, ‘Flowers’ runs at Gagosian, New York, Park & 75, USA, through 16 August.

Main image: Tom Wesselmann, ‘Flowers’, 2019, exhibition view. © The Estate of Tom Wesselmann/Licensed by ARS/VAGA, New York; courtesy: Gagosian; photograph: Rob McKeever

Olivia Rodrigues is a comedian and writer based in New York.

Issue 206

First published in Issue 206

October 2019

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