Tom Wesselmann (February 23, 1931 - December 17, 2004) was an American pop artist who specialized in found art collages.
He was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. From 1949 to 1951 he attended college in Ohio; first at Hiram College, and then transferred to major in Psychology at the University of Cincinnati. He was drafted into the US Army in 1952, but spent his service years stateside. He started making his first cartoons while still in the service, and became interested in cartooning as a career. After his discharge he decided to study drawing, so he completed his university studies in 1954 and, at the same time, entered the Art Academy of Cincinnati. He achieved some initial success when he sold his first cartoon strips which were published in the magazines 1000 Jokes and True.
In 1956 he was accepted into Cooper Union and moved to New York. The bustling New York art scene and museums inspired him. During a visit to MoMA he was struck by the Robert Motherwell painting Elegy to the Spanish Republic: “The first aesthetic experience… He felt a sensation of high visceral excitement in his stomach, and it seemed as though his eyes and stomach were directly connected”.
At the same time Wesselmann was drawn to the work of Willem de Kooning: “…He was what I wanted to be”, but he soon understood the need to return to the language of art and the need to shift right away from action painting: “He realized he had to find his own passion he felt he had to deny to himself all that he loved in de Kooning, and go in as opposite a direction as possible. "The traditional situations of painting would be the subjects; the reclining nude, a still life on a table, a portrait, an interior, etc..
In 1957 Wesselmann met Claire Selley, another Cooper Union student who was to become his friend, model, and later, his wife. 1958 was a pivotal year for Wesselmann. On a trip to Cooper Union's Green Camp in rural New Jersey to paint landscapes, he realized that he could actually become a painter, and make a career of it. He also became more intellectually curious and introspective. The cartooning took a back seat to weightier thoughts and aesthetic pursuits.
After graduation Wesselmann became one of the founding members of the Judson Gallery, along with Marc Ratliff and Jim Dine, also from Cincinnati, who had just arrived in New York. He showed a number of small collages at a two-man exhibition, together with Marc Ratliff, at Judson Gallery. To earn a living he started to teach art, and sometimes math, at a public school in Brooklyn, and later in the early 1960s he taught at the High School of Art and Design.
Wesselmann first came to the attention of the art world with a series of works titled Great American Nude, begun in 1961. He had a dream about the colors red, white and blue, or, more specifically, the phrase "red, white and blue." When he awoke he decided to do a Great American Nude; limiting his palette to those colors and any related patriotic colors: gold fringe on a flag, khaki (the colors of his old army uniform), etc. He began to incorporate patriotic imagery: stars, stripes, American landscape photos, and historic portraiture. He also reworked the colors and images from a formal point of view, with a preference for representation, as in Great American Nude #8, 1961. This was the result of intense experimentation, which also included works that tended towards abstraction, like Great American Nude #12, 1961. He moved on to new materials: pages taken from magazines and discarded posters from the walls of subway stations. The larger collage elements called for a larger format than Wesselmann had used previously. Collage coexisted with painting – either oils or acrylics – and with enamels and drawings, as works began to approach a giant scale he approached advertisers directly to acquire billboards. He met Alex Katz through Henry Geldahler and Katz offered Wesselmann a show at the Tanager Gallery, where he had his first solo show later that year. The exhibition represented both the large and small Great American Nude collages. In 1962 Richard Bellamy offered him a one-man exhibition at the Green Gallery. About the same time, Ivan Karp of the Leo Castelli Gallery put him in touch with several collectors, and talked to him about Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist’s works, which Wesselmann went to see, though without noting any similarities with his own. The Sidney Janis Gallery put on the important New Realist exhibition in November 1962, which included works by Jim Dine, Robert Indiana, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, George Segal, and Andy Warhol, and Europeans such as Arman, Baj, Christo, Yves Klein as well as Festa, Rotella, Jean Tinguely, and Schifano. It came after the Nouveau Réalisme exhibition at the Galerie Rive Droite in Paris, and marked the international debut of a highly significant group of artists who were soon to give rise to what came to be called Pop Art and Nouveau Réalisme.
Wesselmann took part, with some reservation, in the New Realist show where he exhibited two works from 1962: Still life #17 and Still life #22. Also in 1962 Wesselmann started working on a new series of still lifes, continuing the use of collage but incorporating real objects: he picked up shelves, television sets, a refrigerator (for Still Life #20) wherever he happened to find them, and turned them into new assemblages. The plastic corncob in Still Life #24 was bought by Wesselmann from a corn seller for fifty dollars. Great American Nude #2 was shown in the traveling exhibition entitled Recent Painting USA: The Figure, put on by MoMA, which also arranged a study day devoted to Pop Art in the same year.
While not a cohesive movement, the idea of Pop Art (a name coined by Lawrence Alloway and others) was gradually spreading among international critics and the public. As Henry Geldzahler observed: “About a year and a half ago I saw the works of Wesselmann..., Warhol, Rosenquist and Lichtenstein in their studios (it was more or less July 1961). They were working independently, unaware of each other, but drawing on a common source of imagination. In the space of a year and a half they put on exhibitions, created a movement and we are now here discussing the matter in a conference. This is instant history of art, a history of art that became so aware of itself as to make a leap that went beyond art itself”.
Wesselmann never liked his inclusion in American Pop Art, pointing out how he made an aesthetic use of everyday objects and not a reference to them as consumer objects: “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”.
His experimentation with still life intensified: in Still Life #28 he included a television set that was turned on, “interested in the competitive demands that a TV, with moving images and giving off light and sound, can make on painted portions”. He concentrated on the juxtapositions of different elements and depictions, which were at the time truly exciting for him: “Not just the differences between what they were, but the aura each had with it. They each had such a fulfilled reality: the reverberations seemed a way of making a picture more intense. A painted pack of cigarettes next to a painted apple wasn’t enough for me. They are both the same kind of thing. But if one is from a cigarette ad and the other a painted apple, they are two different realities and they trade on each other; lots of things – bright strong colors, the qualities of materials, images from art histories or advertising – trade on each other. This kind of relationship helps establish a momentum throughout the picture..., therefore throughout the picture all the elements compete with each other. At first glance, my pictures seem well behaved, as if – that is a still life, O.K. But these things have such crazy give-and-take that I feel they get really very wild”. He took part in the touring exhibition New Directions in American Painting group exhibition with Still Life #25. In the show in Houston, Texas Pop Goes the Easel, he exhibited Great American Nude #42, and in Boston Collects Modern Art, Great American Nude #35 was exhibited. He married Claire Selley in November of 1963.
In 1964 he was at the Green Gallery with a new solo exhibition, and he took part in The Popular Image in London. Bathtub #3, 1963, was shown in New Directions in American Painting and Recent Acquisitions group exhibitions, both at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University.
Ben Birillo, an artist and gallerist Paul Bianchini’s business partner, contacted Wesselmann and other artists, including Warhol, Lichtenstein, and artist Robert Watts, to put on The American Supermarket at the Bianchini Gallery in New York. This was the installation of a large supermarket where Pop works (Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup, Watts’s colored wax eggs and so on) were shown among real food and neon signs. He started working on landscapes: Landscape #2; Little Landscape #1, Landscape #1; the last of these three also has a soundtrack, the noise of a Volkswagen starting up, and the first shaped canvas nudes appeared.
Wesselmann had his third solo exhibition at the Green Gallery. His works in these years: Great American Nude #53, Great American Nude #57, show an accentuated, more explicit, sensuality, as though celebrating the rediscovered sexual fulfilment of his new relationship. He took part in the New American Realism group exhibition at the Worcester Art Museum, and in the Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1966 Wesselmann had his first solo exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery, a relationship that endured until the gallery closed in 1999. He took part in the Art Market Part IV at the Cincinnati Art Museum where he showed Still Life #44. He carried on working on his landscapes, but also made the Great American Nude #82, reworking the nude in a third dimension not defined by drawn lines but by medium: molded plexiglass modelled on the female figure, then painted. His compositional focus also became more daring, as in the Great American Nude #78, narrowing down to isolate a single detail: as in Mouth #7 (with which in 1965 Wesselmann started his work on this subject) and later in that of a breast in his Seascapes the following year. He took part in the Art in the Mirror and Contemporary American Still Life group exhibitions at MoMA. He was included in the Dada 1916-1966 exhibition at the Galleria Nazionale Arte Moderna in Rome. “When I came across this [Dadaism]... well, it had nothing to do with me... but when my work started developing, I sort of realized, not consciously but with surprise, that possibly it did indeed have something to do with my work”.
Spending lot of time in the country (on Cape Cod and upstate New York), he discovered a new dimension in his work. In contact with nature he made several small oil paintings that he turned into large-format works in his studio back in New York. He also started using an old projector to enlarge his studies up to sizes more suitable for the definitive version of the work. The Ileana Sonnabend Gallery in Paris organized his first solo exhibition in Europe, while Dayton’s Gallery in Minneapolis and the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln put on a retrospective of thirty-six works. These included the Great American Still Life, of 1962; Still Life #26, #36, #46, #49, of 1964; Great American Nude #51, of 1963, and Great American Nude #75 of 1965, and a series of views; Landscape #5, Seascape #4, #7, of 1965, which were constructed from the negative space around a breast. This began of the Drop-Out series in which "the central image, a breast, was omitted from the shaped canvas while the nipple and areola were retained...The shape is the shape one sees, for example, while lying alongside a woman who is seated on the beach". The breast and torso frame one side of the image while the arm and the leg form the other two sides. Next to Mouth #4, #5, #6 of 1966, two new subjects appeared: Bedroom Painting #1, and the series devoted to smoking: Smoker Study #11, #13, #31, #34. The Smokers came from a cigarette lit up during a pause by Peggy Sarno, the friend and model whose mouth Wesselmann was painting. The pictorial recording of that gesture led to a series of works that were to become one of the most recurrent themes in the 1970s. He started working on shaped canvases and opted for increasingly large formats. A participant at the 9th Biennale in São Paulo, Brazil, the following year he was in Kassel for the fourth Documenta.
He worked constantly on the Bedroom Painting series in which elements of the Great American Nude, Still Lifes and Seascapes were juxtaposed (as can be seen in Bedroom Painting #26). With these works Wesselmann began to concentrate on a few details such as hands, feet (the first appear in Little Seascape #1 of 1965), and breasts surrounded by flowers and objects. A major motivation of the Bedroom Paintings was to shift the focus and scale of the attendant objects around a nude; these objects are relatively small in relation to the nude, but become major, even dominant elements when the central element is a body part. He continued to rework his own vocabulary: the mouths of the Smokers can only just be seen through the clouds of smoke, and he started on the Great American Nude #100, 1970, the last of his Great American Nudes, which he finished in 1973. The breast of a concealed woman appeared in a box among Wesselmann's sculpted still life elements in a piece entitled Bedroom Tit Box, a key work that. Still Life# 57 was purchased by MoMA, the Sidney Janis Gallery put on a new solo exhibit, and the Newport Harbor Art Museum in California presented the monographic Early Still Lifes: 1962-1964.
In 1972 Wesselmann had exhibitions in New York at the Sidney Janis Gallery, the Rosa Esman Gallery, and in Europe at the Aronowitsch Gallery in Stockholm. He made Still Life #59, five panels that form a large, complex dimensional, freestanding painting: here too the elements are enlarged, and part of a telephone can be seen. A nail-polish bottle is tipped up on one side, and there is a vase of roses with a crumpled handkerchief next to it, and the framed portrait of a woman, actress Mary Tyler Moore, whom Wesselmann considered as the ideal prototype girlfriend. These are works in which he made more recognizable portraits, with a less anonymous feel. In Bedroom painting #12 he inserted a self-portrait. Still Life #60 appeared in 1974: the monumental outline, almost 26 feet (eight meters) long, of the sunglasses acts as a frame for the lipstick, nail polish and jewelry; a microcosm of contemporary femininity that Wesselmann took to the level of gigantism. His Smokers continued to change: he introduced the hand, with polished fingernails sparkling in the smoke. He exhibited at the Sidney Janis Gallery and at the Galerie des Quatre Mouvements in Paris, where he showed a series of Smokers Studies and sketches for his Bedroom Paintings, as well as the Great American Nude #100 which he had just finished. With this he brought to an end the series devoted to the Great American Nude which, in its very name recalls the ironic cartoon-style titles of the Sixties: the “Great American Dream” and the “Great American Novel”. But of course the incontrovertible sensuality of Wesselmann’s nudes was constantly accompanied by an ironic guiding thread that was clearly revealed in the artist’s own words. His works were shown in a solo exhibit, Wesselmann – The Early Years – Collages 1959-1962 at California State University at Long Beach, and in American Art Since 1945 from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art group exhibition at the Worcester Art Museum. This last exhibition toured to seven venues in 1975 and 1976.
In 1976 there was an exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery, followed by another the next year. The Galleria Giò Marconi hosted a solo exhibition in Milan. Early in 1977 he was selected for the American Art Since 1945 group show at MoMA, and started work on a new series of Bedroom Paintings. In these works he revised the formal construction of the composition, which was now cut by a diagonal, with one entire section being taken up by a woman’s face in the very near foreground: Bedroom Painting #43, Bedroom Painting #38, Bedroom Painting #39 (all made in 1978). The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston organized Tom Wesselmann: Graphics 1964-1977, and he exhibited at the Grand Palais in Paris and at the Galerie Serge de Bloe in Brussels.
In 1980 what is still today one of the most accurate and complete study of the evolution of the artist’s work was published. The monograph Tom Wesselmann is an autobiography written under the pseudonym Slim Stealingworth. A new exhibition, New Sculpture & Paintings by Tom Wesselmann, a solo exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery was held in 1980. His family was complete when, after daughter Jenny and son Lane, his daughter Kate was born. He made Sneakers and Purple Panties in 1981: a large still life on shaped canvas with simply a pair of sneakers and purple panties as the subject. The Margo Leavin Gallery of Los Angeles presented a solo exhibition.
New Work by Tom Wesselmann was shown at Sidney Janis Gallery, and works were displayed at the Sander Gallery in New York and at the Delahunty Gallery in Dallas, Texas. He made his first work in metal, Steel Drawing #1, which led to a series of works in steel and aluminum to which Wesselmann devoted all his energy in these years. The incorporation of negative space that had begun in the Drop-Out series was continued into a new medium and format. They started out as works in black and white, enabling him to redevelop the theme of the nude and its composition. At the same time he was also able to work on a variety of applications of drawing. In 1983 Wesselmann was seized by the idea of doing a drawing in steel, as if the lines on paper could be lifted off and placed on a wall. Once in place the drawings appeared to be drawn directly on the wall. This idea preceded the available technology for lasers to mechanically cut metal with the accuracy Wesselmann needed. He had to invest in the development of a system that could accomplish this, but it took another year for that to be ready. The impact of the first six steel drawings attached to the white wall was amazing, but Wesselmann took his idea further and decided to make them in color: he took Steel Drawing #5 and painted it white. Then came color. As well as colored metal nudes, in 1984 he started working on new landscapes. These were rapid sketches that were then enlarged and made in aluminum. In 1984 curator Barbara Haskell included his work in BLAM! The explosion of Pop, Minimalism & Performance 1958-64 at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The use of metals obliged Wesselmann to experiment various techniques: those in aluminum were cut by hand, and those in steel were shaped by laser, though not without some difficulty. The most effective system, that of working the image on the computer, came a few years later with the development of that technology. Wesselmann researched and launched the first artistic use of laser-cut metal. Metal fabricators, who would not ordinarily be so inclined, were adapting the new technology to meet Wesselmann's requests and needs. Early in this period, however, an assistant was still cutting the steel by hand. He exhibited in Düsseldorf with his solo show Cut-Outs at the Galerie Denise René Hans Mayer. He then took part in the group exhibition entitled The 60s, organized by the Fondation Cartier in Paris. He was included in the Contemporary Cut-Outs exhibition at the Whitney Museum. His 1988 exhibition at Sidney Janis Gallery, Tom Wesselmann, New Works, was exclusively works on cut-out steel or aluminum The following year he exhibited at the 43rd Biennale in Venice, and then with a one-man show at the Tokoro Gallery in Tokyo. The Stein Bartlow Gallery in Chicago put on a traveling retrospective entitled Tom Wesselmann Retrospective-Graphics & Multiples.
Blum Helman Gallery in Santa Monica held a one-man show in 1989, as did Galerie Joachim Becker in Cannes. In 1990 Wesselmann exhibited cut-out landscapes at the Sidney Janis Gallery, and the Studio Trisorio in Naples showed Tom Wesselmann, Laser Nudes. These were followed by the solo Wesselmann: Graphics/Multiples Retrospective 1964-1990 at the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati; Tom Wesselmann Black and Gray, at the Edward Totah Gallery in London; Tom Wesselmann - Recent Still Lifes and Landscapes, at the Galerie Tokoro in Tokyo. His metal works continued to go through a constant metamorphosis: My Black Belt, 1990, a seventies subject, acquired a new vivacity that forcefully defined space in the new medium. The Drawing Society made a video directed by Paul Cummings in which Wesselmann makes a portrait of a model and a work in aluminum. He took part in the Figures of Contemporary Sculpture group exhibition at the Isetan Museum in Tokyo, and in the 20th Century Masters-Works on Paper, at the Sidney Janis Gallery, and in Azur at the Fondation Cartier in Jouy-en-Josas.
“Since 1993 I’ve basically been an abstract painter. This is what happened: in 1984 I started making steel and aluminum cut-out figures. First I painted them, and then hung transparent plastic panels on them and...got the colors and the positioning right (the image was very often fairly complex, and I only had a black-and-white ink drawing: it wasn’t easy to pull out the colors from the complex web of white lines). After finishing the work, I cut the panels in pieces and cast them aside. One day I got muddled up with the remnants and I was struck by the infinite variety of abstract possibilities. 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". (interview with E. Giustacchini, Stile Arte, 2003, p. 29). The Sidney Janis Gallery put on a solo exhibit called New Metal Paintings and a new travelling retrospective (1959-1992) was presented at the Isetan Museum of Art in Shinjuku, Japan. A video was made by Mick Rock for this Japanese tour. Another important retrospective (1959-1993) organized by Thomas Buchsteiner and Otto Letze for the Institut fur Kulturaustausch Tübingen, Germany, traveled to Palais des Beaux- Arts, Brussels; Altes Museum, Berlin; Museum Villa Stuck, Munich; Kunsthal, Rotterdam, The Netherlands; Historisches Museum der Pfalz, Speyer, Germany; Foundation Cartier pour l'Art Contemporain, Paris; Fundacion Juan March, Madrid; Palais de la Virreina, Barcelona; Culturgest, Lisbon; Musée de l'Art Moderne, Nice, France. Wesselmann was then passionately devoted to two subjects; the new Abstract format, and his long standing interest in the female nudes. For the abstracts he preferred an uncontrolled, almost random approach, making compositions in which the metal cut-outs shapes were more akin to painted gestural brushstrokes, as in Breakout, 1996, Round Two, 1997, and Pink Pearl, 1998. His nudes, on the other hand, reveal echoes of the past, as can be seen in the small series made in 1997 which comes back to life in the rectangular outlines of a canvas and in the change of technique to oil painting. These are reworkings of 1960s images: 1962 Plus 35 Nude Sketch I, II, III; 32-Year-old on the Beach, and, from the late 1970s, Face with Goldfish. These canvases: “...constitute an unexpected but highly satisfying nostalgic return to a youthful episode in the very midst of one of the most radical changes of style in Wesselmann’s career. Self-contained and complete in themselves, they seem more likely to stand alone rather than to lead to further reinterpretations of Sixties motifs. In other words they should not be taken as a sign that Wesselmann is embarking on an extended re-engagement with his classic Pop phase, in the way that Warhol and Lichtenstein did towards the end of their lives in their Reversals and Reflections series respectively”. Alongside them there are works made of aluminum, with brilliant colors and an accentuated thickness of lines and flat backgrounds that anticipate the final outcome of his Sunset Nudes. 1996 brought numerous solo exhibitions: Paper Maquettes at Sidney Janis Gallery, a retrospective (1959-1995) at Fred Hoffman’s in Santa Monica, in Singapore at the Wetterling Teo Gallery and at Maxwell Davidson Gallery in New York. The following year, 1998, he was at Hans Mayer’s in Düsseldorf, and at Benden & Klimczak in Viersen, Germany.
1999 – 2000
In 1999 he made his final Smoker work with Smoker #1 (3-D),as a relief in aluminum, taking up the subject of smoke again, but this time in three dimensions. In the same year there were several solo exhibitions including: Small Survey: Small Scale at the Maxwell Davidson Gallery, and Gallery Camino Real in Boca Raton, Florida. The ambiguity between line and color, between drawing and painting, continued in his oils: Blue Nude Drawing; Claire 3/21/97 (both dated 1999); Blue Nude (2000), a painting that led on to a series of blue nudes made in shaped aluminum that went on exhibition in December 2000 at the Joseph Helman Gallery. These played on the alternation of positive shapes (in blue) and negative (in white) and were closely inspired by the cut-out figures made by Matisse in his later years, floating on the walls with elegance and sensuality. He had two shows with Benden & Klimczak; Paintings and Metal Works in Viersen and Abstract Maquettes, in Cologne in 2000.
The abstract works in these years underwent a further change with a return to compositions, with firmer lines and a chromatic range that favored primary colors, making clear reference to Mondrian: Manhattan Beauty; and New York City Beauty (both 2001). Works were shown at the Pop Impact! group exhibition, at the Whitney Museum, and at the Les Années Pop exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, Paris. He started working on the Sunset Nude series, in which he went back to a pictorial classicism that shows the influence of Matisse’s nudes. Though he had loved Matisse during his early years of training, he had to move away from his influence in order to render with greater self-assurance the complex compositions of nudes and interiors that struck him most: “Matisse was just so incredibly good… He was the painter I most idolized”. He was able to take a first-hand look at the works of the French master in the Gouaches Découpées exhibition at MoMA in 1960, and forty years later paid homage in his Sunset Nudes, in Sunset Nude with Matisse, 2002, in which he inserted the painting La Blouse Romaine, 1939-1940. In Sunset Nude with Pink and Yellow Tulips, in Sunset Nude #3, which is dominated by the juxtaposition of swathes of flat color, the absence of chiaroscuro and an intricate play of lines makes it possible to see continuous cross-references of positive and negative shapes. It is the mixture between background and figure, the simplification and concision of the details, and the linear compositional skill that Wesselmann takes from the works of Matisse. He painted Sunset Nude with Matisse, and Apples on Pink Table Cloth, 2003, and held important solo exhibitions at the Robert Miller Gallery in New York, at the University of California, Long Beach, and at Galleria Flora Bigai in Venice: here, the catalogue included an essay signed by Stealingworth.
The following year he made the abstract Five Stop in aluminum, and exhibited a series of Sunset Nudes at Bernard Jacobson Gallery in London. These nudes are set against exotic backgrounds, lit up by sanguine sunsets, enveloped by tropical vegetation in Sunset Nude with Palm Trees or Sunset Nude with Big Palm Trees, 2004. The female icon of the new millennium is painted but not described, the decoration enchants, the compositional planes overlap, the borderline between the two most significant areas of his work, figurative work and abstraction, is diminished. In the last ten years Wesselmann's health was showing the consequences of heart disease, but his studio work remained constant. He made Bedroom Breast, 2004, a painted metal relief, referring back to his earlier work, and two Sunset Nudes: Sunset Nude with Frame, a painted metal work, and Man Ray at the Dance, a large canvas painting, at more than eight by six feet. Following surgery for his heart condition, Tom Wesselmann died on December 17 of that year.