This enormous cut-out still life represents both a continued inquiry into pop Americana that Tom Wesselmann began in the early 1960s and an unusual example of work from the mature period of his career. Blown up to wall size (one of Pop art's other names was "billboard painting"), the quotidian components of this quintessentially American arrangement take on a heightened importance; they are, in Wesselmann's own words, "charged with their very presence." Elements of personal significance-a coiled black belt, which belonged to the artist and which he would render in massive sculptural form in the later years of the decade-commingle with more anonymous items, a single nondescript tennis shoe and a few colorful flowers in a blue vase, its gold lid propped up against its exterior.
For all of its modern-day, lighthearted exuberance, Still Life with Belt and Sneaker also testifies to Wesselmann's considerable painterly gifts and sense of form. He had originally planned to be a cartoonist when he enrolled at New York's Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in 1956. But after exposure to the excitement surrounding the New York School and abstract expressionism, he changed course and started to paint and make collages (and often some combination of the two), soon taking his place with Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenburg, and Roy Lichtenstein as one of the giants of Pop art on the east coast. Here Wesselmann's keen feel for compositional balance is evident, as is his awareness of the dialectic between illusionism and flatness. The head-and-shoulders snapshot of a pair of young, attractive women is a two-dimensional object, one that reiterates the flatness of the support on which it is rendered, yet the artist also uses two time-honored art historical devices to point up the mechanics of three-dimensional illusionism: depicting the thumb tack that anchors the photo, and picturing a shadow cast by its curling corner.
Wesselman is perhaps best known for the Great American Nudes he began painting in 1960, a series that comprised one hundred paintings of faceless beauties, and the nude remained a subject of investigation until his death in 2004. Early acclaim also came for his still-life collages of kitchen and bathroom interiors, which were populated by ordinary refrigerators and showers, brand-name packaged food products, and reproductions of work by Piet Mondrian and Henri Matisse; the assortment of objects in Still Life with Belt and Sneaker partakes of the collage sensibility he had developed years earlier. In the 1980s Wesselman began to depict his nudes with a bit more freedom, recalling the abstract expressionism that had been his first artistic influence, and also started to paint wholly abstract compositions on metal. As is evidenced in Still Life with Belt and Sneaker, his still lifes of that period similarly began to take on a looser, occasionally offhand feel-though they are no less compelling in their effects.