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Artists Tom Wesselmann

Tom Wesselmann

American Painter, Illustrator, Sculptor, and Collagist

Movement: Pop Art

Born: February 23, 1931 - Cincinnati, Ohio

Died: December 17, 2004 - New York City

Quotes

"I dislike labels in general and 'Pop' in particular, especially because it overemphasizes the material used. There does seem to be a tendency to use similar materials and images, but the different ways they are used denies any kind of group intention."
Tom Wesselmann
"When people began to talk all the time about Coca-Cola or the Campbell Soup cans and all that sort of stuff, I began to get very uneasy because that was subject-matter talk, and I was involved in important, aesthetic matters, I felt, not subject matter."
Tom Wesselmann
"The prime mission of my art, in the beginning, and continuing still, is to make figurative art as exciting as abstract art."
Tom Wesselmann
"For many years, drawing, especially from the nude, was a desperate attempt to capture something significant of the beauty of the woman I was confronted with. It was always frustrating because the beauty of the woman is so elusive."
Tom Wesselmann
"I'm on my way to becoming a totally abstract artist. No more nipples. No more flowers. All this time I thought my move away from de Kooning was in a straight line, now I'm beginning to see it as a complete circle."
Tom Wesselmann

"I find sometimes I get so excited working, especially when starting new ideas; I get so excited that I get uncomfortable. It almost feels dangerous, like I'm flirting with something dangerous."

Synopsis

Initially a cartoonist for men's magazines, Tom Wesselmann reduced the classical female nude to her essential components: lips, nips and pubes. His Venuses have tan lines. Cigarettes dangle from their rocket-red mouths. Their crisp outlines resonate with the immediacy of a neon sign. Like the nudes of Titian, Velasquez, or Rubens, Wesselmann's mid-century modern nudes sprawl across furniture in suggestive poses, awaiting a lover the viewer naturally assumes is him. Wesselmann's chief interest was not to draw attention to the subject, but "to make figurative art as exciting as abstract art." He succeeded brilliantly at this, and his work engages our senses - as Jim Dine told him before Wesselmann's first show in New York, "You may be one of America's great painters."

Key Ideas

With its fetishistic isolation of erogenous zones (hair, lips, nipples, teeth, etc) Wesselmann's imagery reintroduces the ideal female form to art. Wesselmann's is a post-Abstract-Expressionist incarnation of the ideal body for the consumer age, something to be consumed like a bottle of beer, a tabloid, or a comic book. The most blatantly erotic of the Pop artists, Wesselmann connected commercialism and voyeurism with unprecedented force.
More directly and succinctly than that of any other artist, Wesselmann's work sums up the handoff of Pop from England to America, where Pop art gets bigger, bolder and cruder, almost as if responding to the geographic environment.
The influence of De Kooning on Wesselmann would be difficult to overestimate. An early infatuation with De Kooning led him to fuse the language of billboards with Abstract form. In 1994 Wesselmann admitted "In my early days, I was so envious of [Willem] de Kooning that I almost stopped being a painter." De Kooning's famous Women series of the 1950s was essentially the impetus for Wesselmann's life's work.
Never at ease with the Pop Art label, Wesselmann felt that he lacked the drive toward cultural critique that characterized the movement: "My culture was what I used" he explained. "But I didn't use it for cultural reasons, it was not a cultural comment."
Wesselmann is fascinating to compare with someone like Claes Oldenburg, whose suggestive Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks (1969) also substitutes the part for the whole, but in a more open-ended way. His lack of subtlety is part of what makes Wesselmann Wesselmann.

Most Important Art

Great American Nude #21 (1961)
Wesselmann's earliest and best-known series positions a time-honored theme in juxtaposition with contemporary signs of consumer culture and politics. After a dream concerning the phrase "red, white, and blue", he decided to paint nudes in this patriotic palette, incorporating gold and khaki (colors with military overtones). This resulted in the series now known as the "Great American Nudes." Over-the-top patriotic decor introduces a comic element (the insistent red white and blue palette, star and stripe motifs on the wall, red curtain, and blue and white sheets. On the wall behind her is a portrait of the recently elected President John F. Kennedy (a magazine clipping). Wesselmann's then-girlfriend, later-wife Claire Selley modeled for this painting.

The vibrant color and stylized pose evoke Matisse, and the single facial feature, a toothy grin, is a direct reference to de Kooning, who famously pasted the mouths from cigarette ads onto his canvases of the 1950s. Her devil-may-care expression, juxtaposed with Kennedy's formal attire and earnest gaze, suggests that both are equally contrived. Cleverly arranged pairings between the private space of the bedroom and public sphere of contemporary politics are a hallmark of Wesselmann's oeuvre.
Casein, Enamel, Graphite, Printed Paper, Fabric, Linoleum and Embroidery on Board - Mugrabi Collection / Estate of Tom Wesselmann
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Biography

Childhood

Wesselmann was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on February 23, 1931. While little about his early years is a matter of public record, he has stated emphatically that his hometown was not a place he felt he could develop as an artist: "Cincinnati was a negative influence on me as far as art is concerned. In Cincinnati, I was unaware of the existence of art. I thought all artists painted like Norman Rockwell." Elsewhere, he elaborated, "You can look back and see how dreadfully commonplace I was." He would not develop a particularly strong interest in art until well into adulthood.

Early Training

Tom Wesselmann Biography

Between 1949 and 1951, he attended college in Ohio, first at Hiram College, later transferring to the University of Cincinnati, where he studied psychology. He put his education on hold after being drafted into the U.S. Army for the Korean War in 1952, though he was able to spend his time in service stateside. While in the army, he began drawing and decided to pursue a career as a cartoonist. Once he got out of the army he returned to Ohio and completed his degree in 1954, then began to study drawing at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. He had some success designing comic strips for men's magazines and humor periodicals.

In 1956, he moved to New York with the intention of furthering his career as a cartoonist, and was admitted to Cooper Union, one of the most prestigious and competitive art schools in the United States. Under the influence of Willem de Kooning, whose work was frequently on view at the Sidney Janis Gallery in Midtown Manhattan, he developed an interest in landscape painting and the nude, and a particularly fruitful landscape painting trip to rural New Jersey in 1958 changed the course of his career. He decided to abandon cartooning and pursue fine art. As he later wrote in his autobiography, his interest in aesthetics and intellectual pursuits deepened around this time, and he grew more introspective. He also met Claire Selley, with whom he became friends. She modeled for some of his work, they married in 1963 and had two daughters and a son, and for the remainder of his life she was a major influence on his art.

Over the course of his studies in New York, exposure to galleries, museums, and exhibitions in the city deepened his interest in fine art. "New York lit him on fire," Claire would later comment, and it became his home for over four decades. The works of Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning particularly inspired him, though he didn't want to follow in the footsteps of Abstract Expressionism or Action Painting.

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Tom Wesselmann Biography Continues

After graduating from Cooper Union in 1959, Wesselmann became involved with the Judson Gallery, which operated out of a church on the south side of Washington Square Park. The Judson Gallery supported a loosely organized group of experimental artists all of whom were still unknown, but many of whom would become famous: Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, and two fellow Cincinnati natives, Jim Dine and Marc Ratliff, were all part of this circle and the pastors offered them free space for exhibitions and performances. Wesselman took a job teaching high school in Brooklyn to pay the bills; occasionally he led math classes, but mostly he taught art.

His association with the Judson Gallery led him into collage and assemblage, out of which he constructed large colorful nudes. His first solo exhibition took place at the Tanager Gallery in New York in 1961. Sensing the artist was nervous and uncertain about how his work would be received, Jim Dine told him, "You may be one of America's great painters." Dine's support gave Wesselmann a morale boost throughout these early shows, and his large-format Still Lifes and Great American Nudes soon caught the attention of influential figures in the New York art world, among them Henry Geldzahler, Alex Katz, and Ivan Karp.

Mature Period

Tom Wesselmann Photo

In 1962, two of Wesselmann's Still Life paintings debuted in the New Realists exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery. These works were firmly rooted in the context of midcentury American mass culture, with branded consumer goods a focus of the composition. Not coincidentally, the gallery was also where de Kooning's exhibition Painting on the theme of the Women, had brought the figure back into abstract art, a highly controversial development in Abstract Expressionist circles in 1953. The New Realists exhibition brought together artists who had been working along parallel lines since then, including Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Indiana, and Claes Oldenburg. It proved every bit as controversial as de Kooning's: one of Wesselmann's idols, Robert Motherwell, was among the Abstract Expressionists who cut ties with the gallery in protest. Despite the lack of appreciation among members of the old guard for this new figurative streak, the exhibition marked the start of Pop Art in America.

From that point on, Wesselmann and other members of the American Pop art movement began to associate with one another professionally and socially. Wesselmann visited Lichtenstein in the Hamptons and attended Warhol's Factory parties. They rarely discussed art, however, and in his 1984 interview with art historian Irving Sandler, Wesselmann described these social situations as "like a cocktail party" with little serious conversation on art. "At no point do I remember talking art with any of them. We, none of us, talked art. None of us" he recalled. In this and other interviews, Wesselmann emphasized feeling like the odd one out amongst artists he believed had a greater stake in the Pop movement.

Wesselmann continued to develop two series, Still Lifes and Great American Nudes, throughout the mid 1960s and into the 1970s, with an emphasis on the idealized, erotic female nude that distanced him from other Pop artists. As time went on, he established a number of long-running series that retained elements of the works that had first brought him fame. He spent a summer in Cape Cod in 1966, and was inspired by the scenes of women lying on the beach, framed by coastal scenery. This vacation gave rise to the Seascapes series, in which specific features of the female body - a mouth, a foot, a breast - are a primary focus of the composition. He would integrate this targeted examination of the female subject into his ongoing series of nudes and still lifes. He would also combine elements of all three in his Bedroom Paintings, which he began in the late 60s and would comprise a significant proportion of his artistic output throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Late Period

Tom Wesselmann Portrait

In 1980, Wesselmann published an autobiography and survey of his work under the nom de plume of Slim Stealingworth. The decade would also mark the beginning of a shift in focus to works in steel and aluminum, in the form of both freestanding sculpture as well as sketches etched into flat metal surfaces. Much of the latter work was done by hand, until he was able to acquire an industrial laser. He spent a year working with metalwork fabricator Alfred Lippincott to develop a technique that would allow him to work with metal with the precision he demanded. He was delighted when he finally saw the finished product: "It was so exciting. It was like suddenly I was a whole new artist." The Steel Drawings began as monochrome metal nudes, though after producing six of these he was inspired to incorporate color. He elaborated, "When a nude was done in black it was, forcefully, a drawing. When the same steel drawing was done in color, it became a nude more than a drawing. The subject matter, that is, became the more dominant element." By the late 1980s he was incorporating landscape sketches into this format as well.

In the 1990s, Wesselmann's art was primarily focused on two key subjects: the newer abstract format (which often, though not always, involved working with metal), and the female nude. Even for an artist who had always tended to revisit earlier subjects, his work from this period stands out for its reflective quality. It looks back on early sources of inspiration (particularly Henri Matisse) while also acknowledging peers who produced art that roused him, like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. A number of his nudes from this period appear alongside his impressionistic reproductions of well-known works by other artists. As he acknowledged in a 2003 interview, the 1990s were a time for returning to the foundations of his work: "That was when I understood I was going back to what I had desperately been aiming for in 1959, and I started making abstract, three-dimensional images in cut metal. I was happy and free to go back to what I wanted: but this time not on de Kooning's terms, but on mine."

Wesselmann struggled with heart problems during the late 1990s and early 2000s, though this does not seem to have slowed his artistic production. In what would become his final works, the Sunset Nudes series, he returned to the female form and paid homage to Matisse through his bold, abstract use of color. Following complications from heart surgery, he died on December 17, 2004 at the age of 73, leaving behind his wife of over 40 years, and three children. In 2005, a year after Wesselmann's death, one of his original compositions was featured on the soundtrack for Brokeback Mountain "I Love Doing Texas With You."


Legacy

Wesselmann was clearly in dialogue with his Pop predecessors and contemporaries, among them Lichtenstein and Warhol, with whom he shared an interest in the commodification of the female form. In its flirtations with photorealism, Wesselmann's work is worth comparing to that of Wayne Thiebaud and Audrey Flack, a painter whose flair for unabashedly sensual color and slick aesthetic has much in common with Wesselmann's. Frank Stella's work and even his career trajectory - from canvas to painted metal - owes much to Wesselmann. One sees his impact even more obviously on the following generation of artists, most famously John Currin and Jeff Koons, who took Wesselmann's explorations of the female body as commercial spectacle a step further, with forays into pornography. While exasperating interviewers, Wesselmann's insistence that there was no deep meaning at the root of his art inspired future artists, including Frank Stella and Jeff Koons, to insist there is no deep psychological message in theirs either. As Frank Stella put it, "What you see is what you see." The same might be said of Wesselmann's work. By calling attention to the ways in which advertising shapes identity, Wesselmann and other Pop artists inspired Barbara Kruger, whose large-scale works took aim at the language of mid-century billboards, destabilizing the wholesome image of American life these were intended to convey.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Tom Wesselmann
Interactive chart with Tom Wesselmann's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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Artists

Henri Matisse
Willem de Kooning
Édouard Vuillard
Piet Mondrian
Robert Motherwell

Friends

Alex Katz
Roy Lichtenstein

Movements

Abstract Expressionism
Fauvism
Tom Wesselmann
Tom Wesselmann
Years Worked: 1952 - 2004

Artists

Roy Lichtenstein
Andy Warhol
Jim Dine
Eric Fischl
Mickalene Thomas

Friends

Irving Sandler
Sidney Janis
Henry Geldzahler

Movements

Pop Art

Content compiled and written by Jen Glennon

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jen Glennon
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Available from:
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Useful Resources on Tom Wesselmann

Books
Websites
Articles
Videos
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
biography
Tom Wesselmann

Edited by Stephanie Aquin

Tom Wesselmann

By Slim Stealingworth (pen name for Tom Wesselmann)

Tom Wesselmann: His Voice and Vision

By John Wilmerding

Tom Wesselmann: A Survey, 1959-1995

By Sam Hunter

Transcript of Wesselmann interview with Irving Sandler (Jan-Feb 1984)

Archives of American Art
January 3 - February 8, 1984

Review: The Naked Truth About Pop Artist Tom Wesselmann

By Michael Paglia
Westword
Aug 20, 2014

5 Defining Moments For Artist Tom Wesselmann

By Danielle St. Peter
Denver Art Museum (Staff Blog)
Jun 25, 2014

Naked Or Nude? Wesselmann's Models Are A Little Bit Of Both

By Susan Stamberg
NPR News
Jul 17, 2013

Talking About Tom Wesselmann

Stephane Aquin and Andres Duran discuss retrospective exhibits of Wesselmann in 2013

Tom Wesselmann Sings at Sidney Janis Gallery

The artist sings a country song of his own composition in New York in 1988

Tom Wesselmann - Galerie Thomas Moderne

Short walkthrough of a 2013 show of Wesselmann's work at a Munich gallery

Jim Dine
Jim Dine
Jim Dine
Jim Dine is an American painter commonly associated with the Neo-Dada and Pop art movements. In addition to showing alongside such Pop icons as Warhol, Lichtenstein and Ruscha, Dine is also well known for collaborating with Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg and John Cage on a series of "happenings".
ArtStory: Jim Dine
Pop Art
Pop Art
Pop Art
British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
ArtStory: Pop Art
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning
Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
ArtStory: Willem de Kooning
Claes Oldenburg
Claes Oldenburg
Claes Oldenburg
The Swedish-American artist and architect Claes Oldenburg, an early figure in New York happenings and Pop art, is best known for his floppy sculptures and larger-than-life public works of consumer goods, musical instruments, and everyday objects.
ArtStory: Claes Oldenburg
Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell was a first-generation Abstract Expressionist whose paintings use hulking shapes, large-scale strokes and calligraphy, and wide expanses of muted color. Eloquent and well-educated, he wrote extensively on theories of art.
ArtStory: Robert Motherwell
Abstract Expressionism - Action Painting
Abstract Expressionism - Action Painting
Abstract Expressionism - Action Painting
Action Painting was a term coined by art critic Harold Rosenberg to refer to the gestural mode of Abstract Expressionism, characterized by drips, flung paint, and rapid, spontaneous strokes. In this view the painting is a record of the artist's activities over time.
ArtStory: Abstract Expressionism - Action Painting
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg, a key figure in early Pop art, admired the textural quality of Abstract Expressionism but scorned its emotional pathos. His famous "Combines" are part sculpture, part painting, and part installation.
ArtStory: Robert Rauschenberg
Henry Geldzahler
Henry Geldzahler
Henry Geldzahler
Henry Geldzahler was a curator of contemporary art in the late twentieth century, as well as a modern art art historian and critic. He is best known for his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and as the New York City Commissioner of Cultural Affairs. As an independent curator, he worked at the alternative space P.S. 1 and the Dia Art Foundation.
Henry Geldzahler
Alex Katz
Alex Katz
Alex Katz
Alex Katz is an American figurative artist associated with the Pop art movement. His works seem simple, but according to Katz they are more reductive, which is fitting to his personality. Katz has received numerous accolades throughout his career, and has been the subject of a documentary and numerous publications.
ArtStory: Alex Katz
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol was an American Pop artist best known for his prints and paintings of consumer goods, celebrities, and photographed disasters. One of the most famous and influential artists of the 1960s, he pioneered compositions and techniques that emphasized repetition and the mechanization of art.
ArtStory: Andy Warhol
Roy Lichtenstein
Roy Lichtenstein
Roy Lichtenstein
Roy Lichtenstein was an American painter and a pioneer of the Pop art movement. His signature reproductions of comic book imagery eventually redefined how the art world viewed high vs. lowbrow art. Lichtenstein employed a unique form of painting called the Benday dot technique, in which small, closely-knit dots of paint were applied to form a much larger image.
ArtStory: Roy Lichtenstein
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse was a French painter and sculptor who helped forge modern art. From his early Fauvist works to his late cutouts, he emphasized expansive fields of color, the expressive potential of gesture, and the sensuality inherent in art-making.
ArtStory: Henri Matisse
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns is an American artist who rose to prominence in the late 1950s for his multi-media constructions, dubbed by critics as Neo-Dada. Johns' work, including his world-famous targets and American flags series, were important predecessors to Pop art.
ArtStory: Jasper Johns
Frank Stella
Frank Stella
Frank Stella
Frank Stella is an American artist whose geometric paintings and shaped canvases underscore the idea of the painting as object. A major influence on Minimalism, his iconic works include nested black and white stripes and concentric, angular half-circles in bright colors.
ArtStory: Frank Stella
John Currin
John Currin
John Currin
John Currin is best known for his provacative subject matter and technical precision. Due to some of his blatantly pornographic figure paintings, Currin has been attacked for being sexist; accusations he sometimes purposely plays upon in his satirical works.
ArtStory: John Currin
Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons is an American sculptor, painter and Neo-Pop artist, best known for mirror-finished stainless steel constructions of animals and everyday objects. Koons' works are often large public installations, in which viewers are invited to interact with his art.
ArtStory: Jeff Koons
Barbara Kruger
Barbara Kruger
Barbara Kruger
Barbara Kruger is an American conceptual artist. Much of Kruger's work merges found photographs taken from existing sources with pithy and aggressive text. Her captions engage the viewer in the work's greater struggle for power and control.
ArtStory: Barbara Kruger
Édouard Vuillard
Édouard Vuillard
Édouard Vuillard
Edouard Vuillard was a French Post-Impressionist painter especially known for his interiors and domestic scenes. A member of the Les Nabis group, his works are characterized by rough areas of color, pointillist daubs and dots, and decorative patterns that spread out across background fabrics and wallpaper.
ArtStory: Édouard Vuillard
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian, a founding member of the De Stijl movement, was a modern Dutch artist who used grids, perpendicular lines, and the three primary colors in what he deemed Neo-plasticism.
ArtStory: Piet Mondrian
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
ArtStory: Abstract Expressionism
Fauvism
Fauvism
Fauvism
Fauvism was an early twentieth-century art movement founded by Henri Matisse and André Derain. Labeled as "wild beasts", Fauve artists favored vibrant colors and winding gestural strokes across the canvas.
ArtStory: Fauvism
Eric Fischl
Eric Fischl
Eric Fischl
Eric Fischl is an American painter, sculptor, and printmaker, who was a seminal figure of the late twentieth-century Neo-Expressionist movement. From his colorful portraits to his iconic suburban interiors and beach scenes, Fischl's work deals largely with themes of the body, sexuality, and modern American society.
ArtStory: Eric Fischl
Mickalene Thomas
Mickalene Thomas
Mickalene Thomas
Mickalene Thomas is an American artist best known for her paintings made out of rhinestones, enamel, and acrylic. In her paintings Thomas investigates the Western concept of femininity, beauty, race, sexuality, and gender.
Mickalene Thomas
Irving Sandler
Irving Sandler
Irving Sandler
Irving Sandler is an American art critic, art historian, and educator who has written several monographs chronicling the history of Modern and Postmodern art. Sandler is known for his interviews with famous modern artists, for example Robert Motherwell, Tom Wesselman, and Willem DeKooning, as well as for curating several critically claimed exhibitions.
Irving Sandler
Sidney Janis
Sidney Janis
Sidney Janis
Sidney Janis was an American clothing manufacturer and art collector turned gallery owner. At his gallery Janis exhibited the works of Abstract Expressionist artists alongside established European artist such as Pierre Bonnard and Piet Mondrian. Through this juxtaposition, Janis has been credited with cementing the legitimacy of American artists because it forced viewers to judge each work, whether by a master or a newcomer, by the same standard.
Sidney Janis
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