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Focusing on the nude, landscapes and still life, key Pop artist Tom Wesselmann is known for his bold palette and stylised figures. The artist shied away from contemporary movements such as Abstract Expressionism, instead favouring the everyday objects and commercial ties that Pop Art had to offer.
Wesselmann’s career started in the US Army in 1953 where he spent two years in military service. During that time he learned and then taught aerial photography interpretation. He began to draw cartoons about his time in the army, achieving some initial success with cartoon strips published in magazines such as 1000 Jokes and True.
When he returned to his hometown of Cincinannati, Wesselmann took up a BA in psychology at The University of Cincinnati, whilst also taking classes at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. In 1956 Wesselmann moved to New York City to study art at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and art where he met and was taught by artist Nicholas Marsicano. During this time he also met his wife and muse Claire Selley.
Early in his career Wessellmann was fascinated by the work of Willem de Kooning, but felt in order to grow as an artist he needed to find his own path. Moving away from ‘action’ painting, Wesselmann consciously focused on more traditional subject matters.
By the 1960s Wesselmann was working as one of America’s pioneering pop artists, creating collage and hybrid sketch artworks combining classic subject matters such as the female form, still life and interiors. In line with his Pop Art contemporaries, Wesselmann’s work often his work took the form of collage; his 1959 artwork Portrait Collage #1 uses a number of found objects, including board, cut out advertisements and organic matter in the form of a dried leaf.
Wesselmann found real success during the 1960s. During this time his collage artworks became more sexually charged, using found images from magazines and images of the female nude. His well known series The Great American Nudes was contemporaneously popular, and shot Wesselmann into mainstream consciousness and popularity.
During his lifetime Wesselmann exhibited internationally, taking part in several groundbreaking group shows in the 70s, and two major retrospectives that toured Europe and Japan towards the end of his career. His artworks are also housed in permanent collections across the globe, including Musée d'Art Moderne et d'Art Contemporain, Paris; Museum of Modern Art, New York; and Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo.
Wesselmann is perhaps best known for his series of female nudes known as Great American Nudes. Artworks in this series are often sexually charged, honing in on a single body part - lips, a nipple or the model's tan lines. They use simple, clean colour palettes and have been described as ‘joyful’.
Despite Great American Nudes being a series attributed to the 1960s, Wesselmann returns to the subject of the female form again and again throughout his lifetime.
Wesselmann’s admiration of Willem de Kooning is widely documented. He has been quoted as saying 'In my early days, I was so envious of [Willem] de Kooning that I almost stopped being a painter' and '...He was what I wanted to be.' However, rather than follow de Kooning, Wesselmann consciously decided to create his own style, following a path away from abstraction. Wesselmann said 'The prime mission of my art, in the beginning, and continuing still, is to make figurative art as exciting as abstract art.'
Wesselmann’s work is also often linked to Pop Art, and though he never felt truly aligned with the movement there are undeniable parallels in medium and subject matter that link his work to that of contemporaries Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton.
Wesselmann’s body of work spans multiple disciplines and mediums, exploring styles and techniques over several decades. His artistic oeuvre contains etchings and prints, paintings, collage and sculpture depicting nudes, landscapes and still life, and yet each work carries an element of Wesselmann’s distinctive style. Colours are flat, clean and bright with reductive forms, striking parallels with the Pop Art movement.
Wesselmann worked in New York City for the majority of his career, over four decades. He lived with his wife and muse Claire, who appears in many of the artist's works, and his two daughters and son.
Wesselmann died in New York in 2004 at the age of 73.
Wesselmann’s later work of the 1990s and early 2000s saw the artist expanding on themes found in his artwork previously. Taking the bold line and colour found in his earlier nudes, Wesselmann created three dimensional forms which moved towards the abstraction he had previously avoided. In his own words he was 'going back to what I had desperately been aiming for in 1959.'
His final years saw the return of the female nude to his work with thick line work and bold colours (and tan lines) evocative of his earlier style.
Wesselmann’s career spanned more than four decades and in that time he produced a large body of work. Artworks do appear on the secondary market, frequently doing extremely well at auction and achieving much more than their high estimates. The record price achieved on the secondary market for a work by Wessellmann was US$10.7m in 2008.
Image © Sotheby's / Great American Nude no.48 © Tom Wesselmann 1963
Produced in 1963, when the Pop Art movement was still in formation, Great American Nude No. 48 (1963) was seen as both genre-defining and shocking; combining two-dimensional objects with stage set-like painting, the work centres around a naked female, laid out on a brightly-coloured bed that deconstructs traditional rules of perspective. The property of German collectors Helga and Walther Lauffs since 1971, the painting has spent much of its life on loan to Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm Museum. In May 2008, however, it shattered its pre-sale estimate by almost $3 million, selling for an enormous $10,681,000 at Sotheby’s in New York – a record for Wesselmann.
Image © Sotheby's / Smoker no.5 © Tom Wesselmann 1969
Smoker No 5 (Mouth No. 19) is a standout example of one of the most recognisable features of American Pop Art – artist Tom Wesselmann’s so-called Mouth paintings. Marking a departure from the artist’s nude paintings of the early 1960s, this 1969 piece formed part of the Smoker series, which started in 1965. A depiction of the mouth of Wesselmann’s friend and model, Peggy Sarno, it is marked for its bold and graphic depiction of the cigarette: an icon of post-war American consumer culture. Unseen by the general public since its exhibition in New York in 1970, Smoker No. 5 (Mouth No. 19) fetched £3,871,250 at Sotheby’s London in March 2017.
Image © Christie's / Smoker no. 9 © Tom Wesselman 1973
Often grouped together with other examples of American Pop Artist Tom Wesselmann’s so-called Mouth paintings, Smoker No. 9 (1973) constitutes a beautifully smooth depiction of another icon of post-war American culture: the cigarette. In May 2008, the work sold for an astounding $6,761,000 at Christie’s New York, performing just as well as closely related paintings like Smoker No. 5 (Mouth No. 19). A foremost feature of the Pop Art imaginary, here the cigarette finds itself between a pair of Wesselmann’s signature ‘lips’, painted from drawings of friend and model, Peggy Sarno. A red-hot cigarette end clashes with the deep crimson of the model’s lips and fingernails, evoking the seductive techniques of American consumer advertising. Between these suggestive motifs, the thick fog of tobacco smoke serves to obscure and beguile.
Image © Sotheby's / Smoker no.17 © Tom Wesselmann 1975