The Tin Man

Late Artist Converted Trash into Works of Beauty

by ALAN BOSTICK, Arts Editor, the Tennessean

The late David Wasserman's family describes him as a modest, retiring fellow with little or no interest in exhibiting his remarkable artwork. But due largely to encouragement from his son, Nashville attorney Steve Wasserman, the 82-year-old artist finally had come around to the idea just prior to his death here, from complications related to Parkinson's disease, on Oct. 12.

In fact, it was on the very day of his death that official confirmation arrived from the Tennessee State Museum that seven of Wasserman's painstakingly crafted tin can constructions would be displayed in TPAC's Jackson Hall lobby during December and January.

'What hurts me,' says his widow, Betty Wasserman, 'is that he passed away too soon to see it on display. But he did have it around him all these years.'

Indeed he did. The living room, dining room, bedrooms and basement of the Wasserman home on Long Island were lined for years with this man's elaborate experiments in a medium that has certainly been explored but apparently never quite in this way.

'I have seen different people use recycled materials in different ways - and it's some of the most fun and interesting art I've seen - but I've never seen it done quite like this,' said James Rutherford, who coordinated the Wasserman show for the state museum. 'It's the way he used the metal, the real personal quality. You can tell there's a long-term commitment that he made to create this work. It's something he did 'on the side' as an avocation. He never did it to sell.'

It's the quiet genuineness of his motives, the insatiable curiosity of his experimenting and the careful, plodding focus on work intended for no one but himself that raise this modest lobby display into one of the most exciting Nashville arts events of the year.


It's unclear exactly when this New York native, who operated a commercial art studio in midtown Manhattan for nearly 50 years, had the first inkling of using garden-variety bits of metal to create large-scale depictions of people, places and things that interested him.

Steve Wasserman - who has become something of an historian of his father's career and even launched a Web page devoted to his work ( -said the artist was no doubt attracted to the novelty of it.'It was something he felt had been hitherto unexplored, and I think he also liked the idea of creating something of beauty from something thrown away, discarded, and completely worthless,' Steve Wasserman said.

Betty Wasserman puts it more simply. In her view, her husband turned to tin cans out of boredom. 'He was not a card player, not a drinker, and he enjoyed being creative,' she said of her husband, who had loved drawing from an early age and studied art at Cooper Union, a private arts and engineering school, from which he graduated in 1940.

'He was an artist, a graphic designer and an inventor, and his mind was always very active. So he got this idea, he wanted to try it, and I encouraged him.'

She did far more than that.

From the mid- to late-1960s, when the tin can fascination really took root, David and Betty Wasserman took regular excursions into New York City area parks to seek out raw material. 'It was a joint effort,' Betty said. 'We went all over in the warm weather. When we started, people were not into the environment that much, so cans were tossed around. We would go out with shopping bags, come home and wash the cans out. There were cans all over the place ...'

The Process

Stealing away on weekends and in the evenings to his basement retreat, Wasserman would set to work on his cans. These were early on made of tinplate, which later gave way to aluminum. He would first use an electric can opener to remove the tops and bottoms. Then he flattened the remaining cylinder and cut it into smaller pieces. He set up a line of wastebaskets, ordered according to color, and deposited the bits of tin can into the appropriate receptacle.

It was from this unorthodox palette that he drew pieces of metal to attach to a large plywood sheet using what Steve Wasserman describes as escutcheon pins. At times he would also make use of roll copper and sign painters' metal as well as paint.

Though the color came mostly from the can pieces themselves - whether the gold and silver of their tops and bottoms, the heavily rusted remains of paint cans or the impossibly brilliant colors from newfangled aluminum cans - Wasserman occasionally highlighted or accented a given section with a direct application of paint. Viewing the TPAC exhibit, one learns quickly to appreciate the artist's subtlety and attention to detail in these works, which each took an average of three to six months to complete.

In Expanding Universe, the earliest of the series, a sardine can doubles as a comet crossing the sky. Immigration Family, a tour de force of mosaic construction, depicts several members of a family drawn with exquisite care. The handkerchief in the father's hand; the bow ties; the gradual variations of rusted can sections that provide texture all demand close inspection.

Circus Poster, featuring a bright orange tiger striped in black, reveals how far Wasserman had developed his technique. The powerful rendering of the animal's mouth, claws and whiskers (created with electrical wire) is outmatched only by the blades of green grass on the lefthand side of the image, grass occasionally broken up by yellow-stemmed flowers.

Still another expressive threshold was crossed with Bride and Groom, inspired by an actual couple, the husband having been related to Betty Wasserman. Here, there are again details of note, including her bouquet of white flowers, but a still more impressive feat is the way in which Wasserman develops the personality of the couple from their facial expressions. Far from the metallic anonymity you'd expect, they suggest real people with decidedly human traits.

Two other works in the show, Williamsburg and Taxi, find Wasserman entering other domains. With Williamsburg - which is again drawn from a photo, this time of two men passing along a street during a Jewish holiday in Brooklyn - we see the artist testing his skills in a couple of areas. First, he is recreating a stained-glass window. Second, he is depicting a sharp street corner, where he must resort to Renaissance-era rules of perspective to simulate fleeing space.

Taxi takes him into the familiar field of cartoons, in which he had much experience. But he hasn't avoided touches of realism. From the street signs to the cab's meter to its elaborate front grille, Wasserman did his homework. Most stunning visually is probably the man-hole cover in the lower righthand corner.

To Share or Not to Share

Given the fact Wasserman was content to share his work with family and friends only, why has his son Steve felt the need to take it public?

'He was the kind of guy who didn't blow his own horn and didn't want us to do it for him,' Steve said. 'But we felt he had something special to share with the world. He did enjoy it when people would come to the house and look at the work.'

Still, the elder Wasserman was so shy, Steve says, that he disliked making the rounds of New York advertising agencies with samples from his commercial studio work. But somehow, one suspects, the artist would not object to the State Museum show. The pieces are currently not for sale, and will eventually return to the family. Down the road, Steve would like to arrange other exhibits, to put his father's work in front of more people.

In the meantime, there's the current show running through next month, which Rutherford says is designed, as part of the museum's lobby series, to be seen by state office workers in the building, TPAC event audiences and the occasional passerby.