In the early 1960s Tom Wesselmann set himself the challenge to paint the Great American still life and Still Life #28 is one of the most outstanding fulfillments of this ambition. Wesselmann has mixed conventional oil painting with collage elements to resuscitate what many contemporary artists then considered a dead and irrelevant convention, especially amidst a climate that championed Abstract Expressionism and scorned figuration. Wesselmann created a new type of genre painting for a modern day America: one that celebrates with unashamed idealism and patriotism the shining consumer lifestyle that was the product of the American dream. Wesselmann presents in Still Life #28 an intimate tableau of clean and wholesome American domesticity, like the backdrop to an Ozzie and Harriet soap drama. His brave new world was a blueprint for the promised land of Kennedy's Camelot, where the principles of freedom, harmony and prosperity are proclaimed through the exacting order of Wesselmann's composition and through his celebration of mass media communication and consumerism.
Along with Warhol, Oldenburg and Lichtenstein, Wesselmann felt that he had little to add to the triumphs of Abstract Expressionism and instead turned to figuration and the visual potential of popular imagery as a means of finding a new direction. Collage offered him a way of introducing a ready-made slice of reality back into art. He did not wish to overturn the traditional notions of painting and actually regarded himself as a formalist rather than a Pop iconoclast. "When I made the decision in 1959 that I was not going to be an abstract painter, that I was going to be a representational painter, I had absolutely no enthusiasm about any particular subject or direction or anything. I was starting from absolute zero. And in choosing representational painting, I decided to do, as my subject matter, the history of art: I would do nudes, still lives, landscapes, interiors, portraits, etc. It didn't take long before I began to follow my most active interests: nudes and still lives." (Wesselmann, quoted in Marco Livingstone, "Telling it like it is", Tom Wesselmann, exh. cat., 1996, p. 10.)
Rauschenberg and Johns had introduced real objects into their art, such as clocks or tires, but used them in an abstract environment totally alien to their normal function. Conversely, Warhol took his soup cans out of their prosaic context and turned them into isolated icons of sterility. Wesselmann was much more literal. As Marco Livingstone has commented, "everything in Wesselmann's art is exactly what it is - no more, no less." (Ibid., p. 9). He uses his chosen objects in much the same way that they would be presented in their true environment and relative to their actual scale. Bottles of Ballantine ale are placed on a table, a portrait of the President presides on the wall where one would expect it to hang. Wesselmann has simply constructed his idealized reality out of ready-made imagery, keeping the situation as real as is possible, and thereby allowing the viewer to accept his vision as true.
Wesslemann has cited Mondrian as a major influence, and this is evident in the flat and seamless order of Still Life #28's composition. Each object is given the same equal weight and importance within the overall arrangement. Wesselmann uses the strong rectilinear forms of the Lincoln portrait, the flag and the television screen to create balance. "From this stock of images Wesselmann made certain basic selections, then working almost as director or choreographer, arranged and rearranged them across the canvas, relying on his sense of composition and density which called for increasingly subtle shifts of objects until the entire work was "locked up" to the point where further changes would destroy the structure. His paintings are precise compositions, anonymous in the materials, yet highly sophisticated in their construction. These paintings, like those of Mondrian, may have been static, but the stasis was the result of a balancing of tensions between competing compositional forces." (T.H. Garver, introduction to Tom Wesselmann: Early Still Lifes: 1962-1964, exh. cat., Balboa 1971.)
Just as he is democratic with each element of his composition, so Wesselmann makes no differentiation between what is traditionally considered high and low art. The plant and pears on the table in Still Life #28 are borrowed from Cézanne's Pot de Primevères et fruits, 1988-90, while the austere portrait of Lincoln is a reproduction of a painting by A.J. Conant. The bowl of fruit is taken from an advertisement and the beer bottles are cardboard promotional cut-outs.
Wesselmann's use of the working television in Still Life #28 was intended as a way of introducing light and sound into his work. At the same time as symbolic of the TV dinner lifestyle of 1960s America, it heightened the veracity of the scene by bringing real-time events, adverts and soap dramas into the painting, just as they would have been beamed into every normal American home. Slim Stealingworth poignantly describes the effect: "Still Life #28 [and #31] have TV sets, and because of the scale of the adjacent still-life elements, they especially demonstrate a certain casual chance element, in that as the picture is changing on the set, images constantly reverberate with those already in the still life. As the TV image changes, the painting composition changes. A commercial featuring products suddenly can galvanize the still life elements and that area of the work dominates. Other, unpredictable relationships are constantly occuring. I myself saw one startling and rather moving moment after the assassination of President Kennedy, when a large head of Kennedy appeared on the screen, almost as big as the head of Lincoln on the wall in the upper left corner of the painting. The brief event gave the work an emotional composition that it still retains for me." (S. Stealingworth, Tom Wesselmann, New York, 1980, p. 30.)
Fig. 1 Jasper Johns, Three Flags, 1958
Fig. 2 Jasper Johns, Painted Bronze, 1960, Museum Lugwig, Ludwig Donation, Cologne
Fig. 3 Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Apples, 1893-1894, Private Collection
Fig. 4 Harry N. Abrams in his study with Still Life #28, Life magazine, 16 July 1965
Fig. 5 Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Yellow, Blue and Black, 1921, Gemeentemuseum, The Hague