New York City
One of the New York artists who rejected Abstract Expressionism to create the Pop Art genre in the 1960s, Tom Wesselmann’s colorful art found expression in still-lifes and landscapes but particularly nudes painted in flat colors without faces. He is best known for his series of 100 works, the “Great American Nudes.” In addition to paintings and prints, he created three-dimensional sculptures and flat “drawings” of laser-cut metal painted in his characteristic bright colors. Wesselmann was born in 1931 in Cincinnati; his father was a corporate executive. He attended Hiram College (near Cleveland) for two years before transferring to the University of Cincinnati in 1951 as a psychology major. Drafted into the Army in 1952, he developed an interest in cartooning and taught himself to draw. After his discharge he obtained his B.A. degree from Cincinnati in 1956 while also studying at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. After graduation Wesselmann moved to New York City and was accepted at the Cooper Union School of the Arts, which did not charge its students tuition. While at the school he met Claire Selley, a fellow student who would become his friend and model and in 1963 his wife. Over his three years of study he shifted to fine art, and began making collages from images found in magazines and movie posters. After graduation from Cooper Union in 1959 he began showing his work with other young artists at the Judson Gallery in New York. He also divorced his first wife, Dot Irish. Wesselmann began painting his “Great American Nudes” series in 1960, with primary colors, patriotic images and elements of collage. After seeing Wesselmann’s works, Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Henry Geldzahler (1935-1994) introduced him to gallerist and artist Alex Katz (b. 1927), who mounted Wesselmann’s first one-man show of nudes in New York’s Tanager Gallery in 1961. The Green Gallery then offered him a contract and mounted a solo show in 1962. His paintings were included in a New York Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Recent Painting U.S.A.: The Figure,” which traveled to museums in eight other cities including San Francisco. The Sidney Janis Gallery’s 1962 group show, “International Exhibition of the New Realists,” anointed Pop Art as a major genre. In addition to two works by Wesselmann, the exhibition included works by other American and European artists working in the new style, including Jim Dine (b. 1935), Robert Indiana (b. 1928), Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929) and Andy Warhol (1928-1987). All of them, with Wesselmann, were recruited by Walasse Ting (1929-2010) and Sam Francis (1923-1994) to contribute color lithographs to the 1964 book 1¢ Life, in which a total of 62 lithographs illustrated 61 poems by Ting; Francis was the editor. Abstract Expressionist and CoBrA artists also contributed lithographs. After solo shows in the Green Gallery in 1964 and 1965, Wesselmann had a one-man show at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1966, which would represent him until it closed 1999. During the 1960s Wesselmann’s subject matter expanded to include everyday objects such as a radio, a car or a package of cigarettes, along with his still-lifes, nudes in a variety of interiors or just a portion of a nude body, such as a mouth or a breast. Trips to Cape Cod and upstate New York inspired his somewhat-abstracted landscapes. His first European solo exhibition was held in 1967 at the Galerie Ileana Sonnabend in Paris. He began creating his series of “Smokers” in the late 1960s continuing into the 1970s, often only a bright red mouth with a cigarette. Wesselmann painted his last “Great American Nude” (number 100) in 1973. Wesselmann’s work appeared in several group exhibitions each year beginning in the 1960s and solo exhibitions annually from the 1970s. The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston organized an exhibition of his graphic art in 1978. Wesselmann published an autobiography in 1980 under the pseudonym “Slim Stealingworth,” in which he wrote about the development of his art. He began creating works in metal during the mid-1980s, eventually developing a system of computer-guided laser cutting to create works of steel, which when painted appear to be color drawings. He “drew” his entire repertoire of nudes, landscapes and still-lifes with this technique. His images in the 1990s became abstract, as he returned in a way to the Abstract Expressionism he had rejected in his young. Near the end of his life he returned to his original theme with his “Sunset Nudes” paintings, influenced by Henri Matisse’s (1869-1954) nudes. Troubled by heart disease during his the last years, he died in 2004 after heart surgery. His works continue to be exhibited widely, most recently in a retrospective exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2012. (TNB 4/2014) Selected bibliography: Aquin, Stephanie, ed. Tom Wesselmann. Exhibition catalog. Montreal: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; Munich and New York: DelMonico Books, Prestel, 2012. Wilmerding, John. Tom Wesselmann: His Voice and Vision. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2008.
Art © Estate of Tom Wesselmann/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY