Tom Wesselmann, 'Drawing for Mouth #3' (1963). Courtesy Kreeger Museum.
Pop artist Tom Wesselmann is generally known for found-art collages such as “Still Life #30,” currently on display in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which incorporates a refrigerator door and plastic 7-Up bottles into a carefully painted backdrop. But a new show at the Kreeger Museum titled “Tom Wesselmann Draws” is largely collage free, focusing instead on how the artist’s experiments with drawing comprised a vital part of his creative process.
In the words of his wife, Claire, who curated the exhibition, Wesselmann’s mission with drawing wasn’t just to redefine it but to “stretch it in every direction.” That meant paper and pencil wouldn’t cut it. He turned instead to fabric, aluminum, and steel for his sketches, looking to create lines that could literally be held in one’s hands. “Fast Sketch Still Life With Fish and Goldfish,” a glorious aluminum “doodle,” captures the freeness of a scribbled drawing in what must have been a painstakingly crafted work. (In 1988, when Wesselmann started on the piece, laser technology for cutting metal was still in its infancy.) And in “Still Life With Fuji Chrysanthenums,” Wesselmann goes even further, placing brightly painted primary lines on top of wider gray ones. The resulting image is startlingly realistic, almost like a static piece of Rotoscope animation.
Scale has great significance in Wesselmann’s drawings, taking images out of the naturalistic or the familiar and putting them into a different dimension. In 2003, when contemplating potential exhibition of his drawings, the artist talked about drawing on “3-D elements to make drawing have more of a sculptural reality.” An eight-foot charcoal work, “Reverse Drawing: Bedroom Blonde With Irises,” uses steel lines as a stencil, creating an image drawn almost entirely from negative space. Up close, the individual lines draw attention to the process, but from far away, the image is seamless.
For purists, the show also contains traditional sketches, including a fiercely focused self-portrait and studies Wesselmann made for his Great American Nudes series (people who find Gauguin nudes offensive will probably want to stay away). But even in these examples, the action of drawing is always paramount, with lines erased and re-drawn and color carefully blurred. The show gives thoughtful insight into how extensive a process creating visual art can be, as well as a detailed look at the complicated exercise of invention.