Tom Wesselmann - Biography and Legacy
American Painter, Illustrator, Sculptor, and Collagist
New York City
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 collage and assemblage, 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.