American Art

Highlighting the work of Tom Wesselmann and Robert Rauschenberg
Tom Wesselmann, Study for smoker, 1976
 
“The prime mission of my art, in the beginning, and continuing still, is to make figurative art as exciting as abstract art” — Wesselmann

As a leading artist of the 1960s Pop Art movement in New York, alongside Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist, Wesselmann looked to the everyday for inspiration, incorporating it into his work. He would paint with fantastically bright colours so as to depict ordinary things in a way that was just as striking as the dynamic work of the abstract expressionists. From one canvas to the next, all sorts of common objects can be found, from perfume and bright lips to cigarettes and flowers. 

Wesselmann is widely recognised for his prolific focus towards depicting the female body, from the voluptuous forms of his Great American Nude series, developed throughout the '60s, following on to the sensuous lips of his Smokers series which continued into the late '70s. The Smoker studies became one of his most recurrent themes, shifting away from his depictions of nude figures and turning his attentions towards a more specific focus on the mouth. 

Observing Study for smoker, 1976, the artist's style is immediately discernible. Wesselmann took photographs of his friend and model Danielle, working from these in order to create his oil canvases. The resultant image is one of intimate sensuality, as bold colours and realistic forms draw the observer into the scene, absorbed within the cloud of smoke, captivated by the polished fingernails and inviting lips of this anonymous woman. By painting only the mouth, abstractedly tipped on its side, Wesselmann accentuates the suggestiveness of this body part, transforming it into a symbol of modern consumerism.
 
Robert Rauschenberg, Mock Blue (Urban Bourbon Series), 1989
 
"You can't make either life or art, you have to work in the hole in between, which is undefined. That's what makes the adventure of painting"  Rauschenberg
 
Rauschenberg began his artistic production during the late '40s, in the wake of Abstract Expressionism. He wanted his work to bridge the gap between art and life, and to question the distinction between art and everyday objects. The artist employed a wide range of subjects, styles and materials, in line with his belief that, 'a painting is more like the real world if it's made out the real world.' Rauschenberg's approach was free and experimental, and his inventive use of materials broke down long-established distinctions between medium and genre. 

In his Urban Bourbon series (1988-96), Rauschenberg worked with silkscreened imagery and expressionistic paintwork on enamelled, mirrored, and anodised aluminium. Naming the series after the all-American whisky, it is wittily suggested that his paintings can be considered artistic reflections upon urban American society. His interest in the utilisation of metal as an artistic medium began in the mid '80s, as he exchanged canvas board for flat sheets of metal. 

Rauschenberg created a vivid collection of works during this time, juxtaposing the natural tones of different coloured metals, such as copper, brass and aluminium, with the application of acrylic and enamel paints and photographic images. Looking at Mock Blue, 1989, Rauschenberg's signature gestural style, or 'free-painting' technique as he liked to call it, is strikingly apparent. Against a sea blue backdrop, reflective depths overlap in an arrangement of green, red and yellow brushstrokes.
June 1, 2020