Jeffrey SturgesDimensionality is a recurring theme in Wesselmann’s work. Broadly seen, Wesselmann’s career divides into four phases, each exploring a different technique: collage and assemblage in the early 1960s; shaped canvases from the mid-1960s until the mid-1980s; cutout metal drawings from the mid-1980s; and a return to painting on canvas, beginning in the mid-1990s. Each phase began with flat wall works and developed into a series of dimensional relief works. This repeated use of the third dimension speaks volumes. Wesselmann wrote: “In all of my dimensional work I use the third dimension to intensify the two-dimensional experience. It becomes part of a vivid two-dimensional image. The third dimension, while actually existing, is only an illusion in terms of the painting, which remains by intent in a painting and not a sculptural context.” Earlier on, he qualified his use of sculptural space to avoid any confusion. He wrote: “The objects remain part of a painting because I don’t make environments. My rug is not to be walked on.” It is fascinating that he gives the viewer so much, and then says, “You’re not allowed.” There is still a velvet rope there. You cannot participate.
Michael Craig-MartinOf course you’re not allowed.
JSCan you talk a little bit about this idea of objects and viewers’ participation?
MCMWesselmann is clearly an artist who, through his whole career, is thinking about the parameters of perception: What is two-dimensionality? What is three dimensionality? What are the conventions? Each question is an examination that leads to speculative play. He explores the parameters of presentation, scale, color, imagery, the way things read, genre—all these different things are being played against each other.
JSThere’s something almost scientific about the way he approaches things. Throughout his career he would make one proposition and then turn around and do the opposite. And there’s sometimes a kind of leveling, but also a sense that they’re all possibilities. One is not more important or better than the other.
MCMI identify with that totally. And very, very often, I think the next thing for me to do is the opposite of what I’m currently doing.
JSDo you think that’s a natural impulse?
MCMYes, for some people. It’s a way of nonhierarchical thinking. You allow yourself more options that way.
JSThe idea of the genre painting is an example of that as well: there is the possibility of the nude, the landscape, a still life, and they’re all equally valid.
MCMYes, and you can use any of the conventions that exist within the traditions of these things. But for me it’s also very exciting to think about his resistance to being thought of as a Pop artist. Sometimes people say I’m a Pop artist and I fight with them. I understand why people say it, but it drives me crazy. When I was a student I graduated in 1966, [and] the explosion of Pop art happened in the early ’60s—from our point of view, it was already over.
MCMIt never even occurred to me that it was a possibility to become a Pop artist. I was also disappointed that I couldn’t become a Minimalist, because that was already finished. I had only known about Minimalism for a year, but I had seen enough to know that whatever you’re doing, it ain’t that.
JSOnce it’s recognized, it’s finished?
MCMWhen something is really alive and interesting for an artist, you can see it in the work—when the artist is still trying to find the thing. And once it’s found, then it becomes dead. The reason we don’t make Impressionist pictures is not because it failed, not because there was something wrong with it, but because they explored everything that was possible to do within that. There is no speculative room left.
JSThat’s the operative word, right? There’s nothing to speculate about anymore.
MCMRight. Every move you make, you’re in territory that’s too familiar. It is true that looking at the kind of work I was doing in the beginning—a lot of people see it as conceptual work in the beginning and then painting or other things later. I see it as a continuity, but I was very conscious of the fact that by the mid-1970s, a lot of conceptual territory was heavily occupied. I wanted territory of my own. That’s what I tried to find.
JSWesselmann once talked about the moment just before he met the other Pop artists. One of his gallerists—Ivan Karp, maybe—told Tom that he was doing something similar to some other artists, maybe Warhol or Lichtenstein. Wesselmann was fearful that maybe [he was], but when he saw their work he did not think that was true. It was reassuring that he did have something that was his own. The Standing Still Lifes are the high point in Wesselmann’s investigation of the shaped canvas. Painted from 1967 to 1981 and exhibited one at a time, these are his largest and most complex canvas paintings. They are composed of multiple freestanding shaped canvases; each work depicts an arrangement of commonplace objects, rendered with detailed precision in carefully blended layers of oil paint on a gigantic scale. Following Wesselmann’s rise to fame in the 1960s for his Great American Nude series of painted collage and assemblage works, he shifted his technique to pure painting. Painting gave him a pictorial freedom in terms of scale and subject that was limited by the collage material. These works have never been exhibited all together, until now. Still Life #56 [1967–69] is the first of the series and is composed of three elements: a white phone, a metallic switch plate, and a white cigarette in a black ashtray. Almost entirely monochromatic, except the orange filter tip. Although normally high in key, Wesselmann’s color is purely descriptive. He wrote: “Color was simple and direct . . . grass was green, sky blue, skin pink, hair yellow. . . . He wanted to avoid the importance of color in any but a physical sense to avoid poetic or emotional mood. . . .” You have written that “the material of painting is not paint but color.” Can you talk a little bit about your use of color, as it’s very distinct from Wesselmann’s use of color?
MCMIt’s very distinct. He also uses very high color in objects like oranges and 7-Up bottles —the white telephone is an exception here—
JSHe could have chosen a red phone. He didn’t.
MCMThis is clearly a composition in gray. I see that the kind of line drawing that I do, which is so deliberately impersonal, so deliberately mechanistic— I want it to look like it was done by a machine. When I made the painted rooms, I started with the room being the bright color and the objects being life-size and a kind of naturalistic color. Over the next two years, I realized that this was ridiculous. By doing that, I had entered a kind of pictorial realm, and I was not using the tools that exist within the pictorial realm—tools that tie one’s hands for no reason at all. I started to play with the scale. I’d make a tiny grand piano and a giant set of keys. Also, I started to take the intense colors from the rooms and put them into the objects. Then I realized that my anxiety about how things should be colored was not a problem, because the color was so arbitrary, it didn’t make any difference. As soon as you start to use a color, it’s going to affect the other colors you’re going to choose. Essentially, if I made something pink or green or yellow or blue, it didn’t make any difference. I use the color because it reinforces the drawing. I change color between one section and another—between one material and another.
MCMYes, for clarity. I’m describing the difference between this part of the light bulb and the base of the light bulb, and color helps make the distinction.
JSEarlier you were saying that painting is a way of reinforcing nowness—that one is here, now. Making the color seemingly arbitrary reinforces the fact that I’m looking at a painting. I’m not looking at a couch or a car. I’m looking at a painting.
MCMI’m using your previous experience of all the light bulbs you’ve ever looked at, but this one, which is yellow and has a green base—this one, you’ve never seen. This is now. [The altered light bulb relies on] your knowledge and familiarity and tries to give you something that’s unique to the moment.
JSWesselmann is almost using color in a linguistic way. One reads grass in the picture because of its form and its identifying color. And even that is an abstraction, because grass really isn’t that green. He’s not just showing you the color of green—he’s almost giving you the word green.
MCMOf course, I identify with that. He’s trying to make color not the issue. Although, of course, in a lot of his work color is the issue. His paintings with oranges—there was one I saw last year, and it was so fabulous. It was a big orange. He uses color—he uses the objects to allow himself certain things.
MCMIf you paint a big orange, you get to use a lot of orange.
JSIt gives him permission.
MCMIf he wants to paint yellow, he’s going to have to paint a banana. . . . I’m sure the choice of object is related to the introduction of the color.
JSHe rationalized his use of colors in a way that AbEx never did—one can put pink or green into an abstract painting, it is open and arbitrary. He’s restricting himself. All of the work has a sense of limiting possibilities and then trying to squeeze something really profound and new out of that.
MCMThe idea of trying to not have to make a decision reminds me of Jasper Johns and the first flags, where he described it as a relief to have something predetermined, where he didn’t have to compose the picture at all, because the composition was already there, so he could just concentrate on the paint. All the best art, in a way, involves taking away choices. There’s too much choice, and it’s wonderful when you stumble on some way of reducing the area of choice that you have to make. One of the ironies about looking at artworks that’s particularly true about paintings is that the thing that helps us recognize a picture by Wesselmann has to do with his style—his content, his color. But that’s the constant; it doesn’t tell you anything that he’s trying to do. He’s not thinking about the constant.
JSRight. Those are the givens.
MCMYes, but they’re the things we recognize as being his. If you want to understand what he’s doing, then you have to look at many works and find the differences between them, not the similarities.
JSThat’s a really good point.
MCMJosef Albers is a great example, with Homage to the Square [c. 1949–76]. He has no interest in squares. That simple format just allows him to do what he’s really interested in, which is to explore color.
JSStill Life #57 [1967–70] includes objects now familiar to Wesselmann’s viewers: the orange and radio, a blue-and-white vase with yellow daffodils, a switch plate, and [a] red-framed window showing a view of trees and sky. These commonplace objects had some personal significance to Wesselmann. Here he writes about his radio: “When I began life as an artist, I was recently martially separated and had few possessions and no money. I had a table, a chair, a bed and a radio. The radio as object was not important to me, but the music it provided was vitally sustaining.” You include so many objects in your work, but do you have that kind of personal relationship to the objects?
MCMAlthough, in the most obvious way, everything is deliberately impersonal, the reality is that everything I draw— First of all, in the early days, I could only draw the things I owned. Then I would get irritated, because when I didn’t have very much money, I used to have to buy something in order to draw it.
JSSo it became yours.
MCMOr I had to go to a friend’s house, if they had an object I wanted to draw. I only draw fabricated, mass-produced objects. That’s essentially what I do. All of them, by their nature, are impersonal in that sense. What’s interesting is how we personalize them.
JSWe bring our own stories to these things.
MCMThink about my phone and your phone—sorry, but this one is mine and I love it. It’s mine, so it’s different than yours, and yet they’re identical. We find ways to imbue things that exist in the millions with specificity to ourselves. I see that in all the objects that I draw, but I am aware that a lot of the impact of what I do is that some people respond to certain objects, and some people respond to others. There are occasionally people who absolutely hate something, and they can hardly bear to look at the painting, because they don’t like the thing depicted.
JSThey bring their own life to it.
MCMYes, and this is absolutely true for Wesselmann as well. Looking at this picture, you can see how much this picture has to do with the color—the yellow daffodils, the orange, the red checkered tablecloth. The radio could be any color, but it is blue, so he’s basically got red, yellow, and blue.
JSAll of the primary colors.
MCMYes. But if the flower was not a daffodil—
JSIt couldn’t be yellow.
MCMIt could not be yellow, but he obviously wanted yellow. Also, it wouldn’t be nearly as good of a painting if the orange was an apple. It wouldn’t work at all! And he wouldn’t allow himself to make an apple the color orange. He would never do that.
JSIt would make no sense, because it would put the whole work into this poetic realm, which he does not want.
MCmHe also plays with all these historically established genres. And he puts them seamlessly into our contemporary lives.
JSHis contemporary life.
MCMThe Great American Nudes have got bikini lines; you wouldn’t have seen that in Goya or in Velázquez. It is very much a part of contemporary life.
JSThat is part of what was so shocking about Pop. When Irving Sandler first saw the Great American Nudes he said that it wasn’t the nude that shocked him, but rather it was seeing all of the products around her that he used every day—that’s what was shocking.
MCMThese are the things that describe contemporary life.
JSStill Life #59, painted in 1972, is the only work in this show to include a very overt popular culture reference. The framed portrait depicts Mary Tyler Moore, a very familiar face on television at the time, who portrayed an unmarried, independent career woman. Her portrait in the painting was copied from the cover of an issue of the magazine Family Circle published in 1971. More than the other objects in the painting, her portrait refers to a very specific time. Seen today, some of the objects feel more dated than others. We use cell phones now, and smoking is banned in most public places. Do these paintings seem locked into their time, or do you think they have something to say to us today?
MCMOnce, when I was a student, I was talking about Renaissance painting, and how looking at those paintings allowed you to enter the world of the sixteenth century. One of my teachers said, “No, no, no—that’s not true. What happens is you bring it into your world by looking at it.” How brilliant is that? We are the ones who make paintings alive again.
All artwork by Tom Wesselmann © The Estate of Tom Wesselmann/Licensed by VAGA, New York. Excerpt from The Parameters of Perception: Michael Craig-Martin and Jeffrey Sturges in Conversation © 2018 Michael Craig-Martin and Jeffrey Sturges, originally published in Tom Wesselmann: Standing Still Lifes (New York: Gagosian, 2018). All Wesselmann quotations can be found in Slim Stealingworth [Tom Wesselmann], Tom Wesselmann (New York: Abbeville Press, 1980), or in G. R. Swenson, “What Is Pop Art? Part II,” Artnews, vol. 62, no. 10 (Feb. 1964), p. 64.