Tom Wesselmann apparently did not like being grouped with contemporaries such as Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol and James Dine, all of whom also became icons of the American Pop Art movement. He considered his works as having a separate aesthetic because his found art collages used the actual materials (magazine clippings, old billboards, objects, so on), instead of merely referencing the familiar and everyday. However, what brought him his initial fame was not only the collage technique per se. He first gained recognition and remains best known for the central component of his work: a nude female figure. His reluctance to accept the “Pop Art” label and his general low-profile life may be why the source for his online obituary comes not from the U.S. but from a Web site out of the U.K.
Rise to Fame
In photos on the artist’s Estate Web site, Wesselmann looks like a nice easy-going guy, tall and skinny. Born in Cincinnati in 1931, he attended school in Ohio with an interruption for army duty in 1953 during the Korean War. That was when he started drawing cartoons. After getting his degree with a major in psychology from the University of Cincinnati in 1956, he moved to New York to attend the Cooper Union School for Arts and Architecture where he became serious about art. He earned his living then by selling cartoons to various publications and by teaching art and Math at a Brooklyn high school. During this time, he met another Cooper student, Claire Selley, who would become his second wife in 1963, and be considered the inspiration for his Nude series.
He and two other Cincinnati natives, Marc Ratliff and Jim Dine, started the Judson Gallery but Wesselmann had his first solo show at the Tanager Gallery in 1961 after developing his first of the “Great American Nude” series the previous year in a large format. In 1962, he did join his contemporaries in showing work at the New Realist Exhibition that brought international attention to the Pop Art movement.
From 1966 onward, one-man shows became regular as his art expanded to include the “Bathtub Collages,” “Bedroom Paintings,” and the “Smokers” series.
For a 1968 show at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, TIME Magazine reported that Wesselmann’s exhibit of the “Great American Nude” included “36 painted toenails, 13 breasts, eleven legs and eight pairs of lips” along with “six oranges, three cigarettes, two radios, two pop bottles, one toilet seat, one hero sandwich, one glass of milk, one Volkswagen and one lemon.”
Change and Return
In the 1980s, he began experimenting with metals. Since the technology was not as advanced as he required, he had to develop art applications for laser cutting of steel and often hand-cut the aluminum he also employed in sculptures. His “Smoker #1 (3-D) in aluminum dates from 1999.
That same year, he began a variation on his favored red, white and blue palette, creating the “Blue Nude” series that he also executed in metal. In the final years prior to his death in 2004 (he had a heart condition), he returned to “Sunset Nudes” that recall his early works and artists he admired.
On a personal note, Wesselmann was afraid of flying so he avoided travel; he walked to the studio from his apartment in Lower Manhattan where he lived for over 30 years; he was a vegetarian; he preferred wearing jeans and liked to compose country songs on his acoustic guitar. You can read a transcript of a long interview from 1984 in the archives of the Smithsonian’s American Art Web site.
Four years after his death, Wesselmann’s ”Great American Nude No. 48” from 1963 sold in a Sotheby’s 2008 auction at a then record price for the artist: $10,681,000. USD. A combination of painting and sculpture, the work partly features a reclining nude, a radiator and a lit window and measures 84 x 106 3/4 x 40 1/2 inches (213.3 x 271.1 x 102.8 cm).
Wesselmann’s works are in museum collections in the U.S., Europe, the Middle East and Far East. A retrospective of the artist is scheduled from October 2010 to February 2011 at the Nova Southeastern University’s Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale and from April through July, 2011 at the Kreeger Museum in Washington, D.C.