‘Misunderstood’ artist Tom Wesselmann’s London exhibition

An exhibition of the collages of the of the at-times provocative artist Tom Wesselmann is on at the David Zwiner gallery until March.

Wesselmann was a contemporary of both Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein and is credited with having a profound impact on the development of American Pop Art (read more about American Pop Art here); but, unlike the two, he never saw himself as a pop artist; his interest in the mass production of images of contemporary America was more visual than ironic. He wasn’t trying to criticize or poke fun at modern American life, he was trying to celebrate colour and shape.

Born in Cincinnati in 1931 Wesselmann’s art career began as his studies at the University of Cincinnati were interrupted when he was drafted in to the army for two years, which is where he began to draw cartoons.
When he returned, he finished his bachelors in psychology but realized cartooning, drawing, was what he loved. He enrolled at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and then the Cooper Union in New York, where his focus shifted more towards fine art. From this point on Wesslemann would begin to mix with the great artists of that time.

Wesslemann’s love of colour and shape often came under fire because of his subject matter, which were the age-old matters of subject: landscapes, still life’s and, nudes. Many women (and men) believed him to be sexist.  But in the more recent years since his death in 2004, the women in his life, including his daughter (with his long-term wife Clare Selley) Kate Wesslemann, have fought vehemently against this notion. Monica Serra, his former assistant and model, told the Guardian Wesselmann had “a fascination with women in a way I’ve never seen in a guy before… The reverence was so big. Almost like they had a magic, you know? I was just very earthy but he thought of me as ethereal – something special. He appears to be some to be some sort of misogynist or womaniser, when the opposite is true.”

Wesselmann’s reverence for classical European art is prevalent not just in the themes of his paintings and prints but in their composition too. However they are adjusted by Wesselmann to be playful, bold, colourful and at times humorous, with a good dose of American symbolism – engaging with the new generation of Americans. The works in this exhibition were created shortly before the series that helped him garner his controversial title: The Great American Nude series. Wesselmann had the idea of creating an iconic genre in art, the way Mailer and Hemmingway had created the idea of the Great American Novel. Of the images in the exhibition Wesselmann once said “They are so charming and cosy that it barely occurred to me anyone would find them alarming.”

Both Serra and Kate believe this exhibition helps us to see the sweetness behind a misunderstood artist; and collages are reportedly what he returned to in his final days.

Tom Wesselmann: Collages 1959-1964 is at David Zwirner gallery, London from 29 January to 24 March 2016.

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