American Painter, Illustrator, Sculptor, and Collagist
New York City
Summary of Tom Wesselmann
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."
- 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.
Progression of Art
Great American Nude #21
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
Still Life #35
Though Wesselmann rejected the label of Pop art, this piece is an iconic work of the 1960s that fits squarely within the movement. Pop art consciously moved away from the Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s, instead embracing cultural specificity. From just a glance, we know this is an image of mid-20th century America. Yet it also references traditional European still lifes that depicted commonplace objects - fruit, vegetables, or flowers - in a manner that highlighted their unique beauty. In this canvas, Royal Crown cola, factory-made white bread, canned stew, and a packet of cigarettes appear in brilliant colors on a table with a striped cloth. On the left, a window affords us a view of a commercial jet soaring over an emerald sea against a clear blue sky. Almost all of the goods are cheap, generic foods, manufactured and packaged with distinct branding and logos. Even the lemons, with their artificial hue, seem as though they could have been produced in a factory. A literal feast for the eyes, this painting allows us to indulge in the fantasy that all these things taste as good as they look.
Oil and Collage on Canvas - Estate of Tom Wesselmann
Smoker, 1 (Mouth, 12)
Wesselmann began his series of Mouth paintings in 1965. This large canvas depicts a monumental mouth with a cigarette dangling from the lower lip. A large trail of gray smoke wafts from the tip, and the full red lips contrasts sharply with the white teeth. The image is at once inviting, remote, and unsettling, and everything is too perfect to be real. In its focus on one part of the body, this enhances the element of fetishism present in Wesselmann's earlier work. He would continue this line of inquiry into the 1970s in both his Smoker Study and Seascapes series - in which a single body part, such as a foot or breast, is the primary focus of the composition.
Rather than representing a specific person or even imitating an advertisement, the disembodied mouth functions as a kind of fertility symbol for the modern age, and also as a kind of self-portrait. The disembodied mouth is unmistakably Wesselmann, a kind of visual calling card for the artist. In fact, Wesselmann's Mouth series almost certainly inspired one of the most iconic band logos of all time, The Rolling Stones cover for Sticky Fingers (designed in 1971 by the designer Ed Pasche, who would have been familiar with Wesselmann's work).
Oil on canvas, in two parts - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Bedroom Painting #76
While he insisted there was no psychic depth to his art, Wesselmann's paintings work a slow magic on our senses. Associations between the landscape and the nude persist throughout Wesselmann's work. The golden curves of the nude rise from the nipple to the crown of the head like mountains in the sun; elements of blue decor in the background mimic sky. With the Bedroom Paintings, Wesselmann brings together elements of his Great American Nudes, Still Lifes and Seascapes series, shifting the scale and focus of objects surrounding a nude figure. Several striking compositions of the 1980s juxtapose painted material with real objects. The inclusion of a functional television in this work underscores the device's ubiquity in everyday life, not always watched but often running, and as much a part of the flow of everyday life as the staring cat and swooning mistress. He began the Bedroom Paintings in the late 1960s, and from 1978 onward they adhered to the diagonal structure seen here, with a woman's face in the foreground.
Oil on canvas on board, with functional television - Private Collection
Monica Sitting with Mondrian
This piece is one of several from the 1980s and 1990s that incorporated iconic paintings by other artists, including Lichtenstein, Warhol, and Matisse, juxtaposing Wesselmann's nudes with these famous earlier works. Made later in his career, they have a kind of retrospective quality that might be seen as part victory lap, part walk down memory lane in a reflective journey back to his roots as a student of modern art.
Here, a lithe and nubile model (Monica) is seated on a pink sofa (or bed) in front of an abstract painting by Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian, another of Wesselmann's idols. While sketchy in appearance the material is metal which has then been filled with paint. Wesselmann arrived at this technique with the help of the Lipincott Foundry in Pennsylvania, where he began to produce work made out of metal in the 1980s, which he referred to as aluminum doodles. "The idea was to take a small doodle and blow it up large, as if it had just been made on the wall," Wesselmann explained. Entitled the Steel Drawings series, these works inspired excitement and confusion when they made their debut. For instance, the curators at the Whitney wrote to ask why he had labeled these pieces drawings and not sculptures. His response was this was "an example of life not necessarily being as simple as one might wish,"and continued, "in the long run ...what it is will not matter. What matters, of course, is it is beautiful, a vivid expression of a valid idea, presented in a specific form that really has never been seen before." The laser-sharp edges of the gleaming, saturated color in these late works in metal brings home the overarching aim of Wesselmann's work: to revive idealized beauty for the age of advertising.
Enamel on steel - Estate of Tom Wesselmann
Sunset Nude with Matisse Odalisque
Painted the year before his death, this exuberant painting is a riot of bright, overlapping planes of color, and sums up Wesselmann's life-long ambition to paint an American nude that rivaled that of Matisse. In homage to his favorite early-20th-century artist, Wesselmann paints two women reclining in a classic pose favored by Matisse. The background figure, an obvious homage to the French master, closely mimics his odalisques of the 1920s in everything from the hairstyle to the minimal shading in brown against faintly modulated peach skin tones. The foreground figure is 100% Wesselmann, with its flat, unmodulated arc of yellow hair, tan to the point of orange, and sunlight bouncing off the skin like a racing stripe. The artist had been particularly moved by an exhibition of Matisse's work he saw at MoMA in 1960, and here he revisits both that early source of inspiration while incorporating many of the evolutions of his own technique. The image brings the viewer's attention to the ways in which standards of beauty have changed over the course of the century, and also serves as a reminder of the continuing relevance of modernist art in the postmodern era.
Oil on canvas - Estate of Tom Wesselmann
Biography of Tom Wesselmann
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.
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.
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 collages and assemblages, 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.
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.
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."
The Legacy of Tom Wesselmann
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.