Modern Master: Tom Wesselman


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wesselmann WebTom Wesselmann (1931-2004) Known for his Pop-Art nude figures–the Great American Nude Series– as well as collages, often with food themes, Tom Wesselmann is a Cincinnati born artist who studied at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and at Cooper Union in New York City in the late 1950s. Wesselmann planned to become a cartoonist until his final year at the Cooper Union where he was much influenced by Abstract Expressionism, especially Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. However, he turned away from that style because he determined these artists had become so introspective that there was little room for creative exploration by others.

His reaction took him to Pop Art, of which is a founder of that movement. Pop Art is the other extreme of action painting to a tightly controlled style and subject matter that was mundane–the antithesis of psychological complexities. Joining a rebellion against the New York School,that which had become the establishment, he, like Andy Warhol and Wayne Thiebaud, asserted that everyday objects had significance unto themselves and that they were worthy of depiction because of a common understanding about what they were.

Of this reaction, Norman Geske of Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery wrote: “The swing of the pendulum was complete, from the esoteric to the commonplace, from passionate individualism to the popular language of the marketplace. The new point of view was not merely popular, it was ‘pop,’ assertive, declamatory, defiant, achieving a stylistic identity in the soup cans of Andy Warhol, the comic strips of Roy Lichtenstein, the billboards of James Rosenquist, and the domestic icons of Tom Wesselmann.”

In 1959, Wesselmann began his collages which showed influence of modernist artists ranging from Willem de Kooning and Henri Matisse. These collages were usually interior scenes with nude figures, a subject he did so repeatedly that it seemed an obsession. During the mid-1960s, he focused solely on female nudes, presenting them as sex objects with emphasis on breasts, mouth, and genitalia.

The pictorial elements, exaggerated in their arabesque forms and arbitrary coloring, became significantly larger in scale in his works of the 1970s, such as a series of Smoker mouths; enormous, partially free-standing still-lifes moved into sculptural space, which finally evolved into discrete sculptures of sheet metal.

In the 1980s Wesselmann returned to works for the wall with cutout steel or aluminum drawings such as Viviènne Doodle (3D) (1986; see 1987 exh. cat, no. 1), which replicate his familiar, graceful line in enamel on cutout metal. Wesselmann was also an innovative printmaker, adapting his imagery to lithographs, screenprints, aquatints and multiples in relief.