To a millennial, the term ‘Feminist’ has negative connotations; it brings up images of Birkenstocks, short hair, and radical views that make most conservative Midwesterners cringe. I’ve never considered myself a feminist but after seeing Tom Wesselmann’s work at the Carl Solway Gallery I have no choice but to lump myself into the category. The visceral reaction I felt upon stepping into the room of Wesselmann’s work was undeniable and it has taken considerable time to communicate the reason for my instinctual disapproval.
Tom Wesselmann was a Cincinnati native and studied not only at the University of Cincinnati but also at the Art Academy of Cincinnati before moving east to Cooper Union in New York City. During his tenure in the Big Apple, he created a gallery space and showed alongside Jim Dine as well as many others. He was one of the original voices of pop-art and to this day, his work is considered to be a prime example of that movement.
Throughout his career, he seems to have focused on two subjects: material goods and women. The ability to elevate objects such as sunglasses, nail polish, pearls, and watches had a DADA-esque flair when he first explored these everyday objects, but over time it became normal for these tools of society and class to be analyzed by other artists and audiences. This work was heavily influenced by the world of advertising, including billboard displays.
On the other hand, the subject of women has been a constant study since the beginning of visual communication. However, I would be more apt to say Wesselmann studied breasts more than he studied women.
This became evident to me as I walked into the four walls of the Solway gallery that displayed his work. I walked slowly around the room, pacing my steps, and trying to keep an open mind, but in piece after piece after piece, my focus was drawn to one thing: his insatiable need to bring attention to the vulnerability and sexuality of women through exposing them.
One particular piece that stood out to me was a laser cut work that had been created in his later years which used simple lines to define a shape. The actual handiwork that went into making the piece was immaculate but the subject matter was that of a woman laid on her back, legs spread apart, and coloring only on the genital area and on her head. Although Wesselmann may have considered himself to be celebrating the female form it came across as a cartoon doodle made by a high school student distracted by hormones and daydreams.
After seeing the Solway show I thought I had made a mistake; surely Wesselman was being celebrated in Cincinnati as a homegrown talent and I was missing something. I judged too soon, I wasn’t open minded enough, I had been ruined by newer contemporary art on the east and west coasts; all of these thoughts raced through my mind and eventually I broke down and went to his retrospective at the Cincinnati Art Museum.
There I found redemption and confirmation. A few works scattered through the galleries seemed to speak to a younger, more conceptual artist who sought to bring a thoughtful messages to the audience. However, more often then not I found women being trivialized, including a giant panel piece that looked to be minimalist; and only when you took a second glance did you notice it was actually a reductive image of a woman’s breast.
At that moment I came to recognize that I was viscerally offended by Wesselmann not because of his study of women but how it seemed that he never examined his own body, his own vulnerability, or his own sexuality but instead used others’.
I walked away from the museum that day knowing more about Wesselmann and more about myself. His continued assertion of power over women’s shapes and body figures was alarming, but it would never change. His perception of reality has been deeply engraved on the minds of those who have seen his work and will continue to affect the minds of those that pass by his Court Street Mural. As for me, I learned that even with long hair, high heels and moderate views I may just be a feminist underneath it all; it just took looking at Tom Wesselmann’s work to finally admit it!