Fine Artists: Tom Wesselmann American Pop Artist 1931-2004

"Great American Nude number 27"  by Tom WesselmannTom Wesselmann was an American pop artist who specialized in found art collages. Among the first of the American Pop Artists, Tom Wesselmann is best known for his "Great American Nudes" series in the 1960's.One of the founding members of Pop Art, Tom Wesselmann, along with artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist, revolutionized the way art is made.

''Great American Nude No. 48'' (shown here) is from a series Wesselmann created in the early 1960s, when Pop Art was still a fresh and exciting concept. The work, part painting and part sculpture, uses an old sink and an illuminated window as part of the composition. Initial reaction to ''Great American Nude No. 48'' was confusion mixed with shock.

Critics didn't know what to make of the work, which resembles a stage set more than a painting and makes sly reference to famous works of the past through placement of decorative objects and composition. Born on February 23, 1931 in Cincinnati, Ohio,

Tom Wesselmann studied at the Hiram College in Ohio before studying psychology at Cincinnati University. Tom Wesselmann was drafted into the US Army in 1952, but spent his service years stateside. During that time he made his first cartoons, and became interested in pursuing a career in cartooning. After his discharge Wesselmann completed his psychology degree in 1954, whereupon Tom Wesselmann began to study drawing at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. He achieved some initial success when he sold his first cartoon strips to the magazines 1000 Jokes and True. In 1955 moved to New York where he studied under Nicolas Marsicano at the Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture. He earned a living by working as a cartoonist for several journals and magazines and taught at a high school in Brooklyn.

"Smoker Study #39" Tom Wesselmann oil on canvas paintingTom Wesselmann's early work was influenced by Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning. However Wesselmann soon rejected action painting. Tom Wesselmann realized he had to find his own passion he felt he had to deny to himself all that he loved in de Kooning, and go in as opposite a direction as possible. In 1957 Wesselmann met Claire Selley, another Cooper Union student who was to become his friend, model, and later, his wife. 1958 was a pivotal year for Wesselmann. A landscape painting trip to Cooper Union's Green Camp in rural New Jersey, brought him to the realization that he could pursue painting, rather than cartooning, as a career.

After graduation Wesselmann became one of the founding members of the Judson Gallery, along with Marc Ratliff and Jim Dine, also from Cincinnati, who had just arrived in New York. He and Ratliff showed a number of small collages in a two-man exhibition at Judson Gallery. In 1959 he turned to experimenting with small, abstract collages. Wesselmann's series Great American Nude (begun 1961) first brought him to the attention of the art world. After a dream concerning the phrase "red, white, and blue", he decided to paint a Great American Nude in a palette limited to those colors and any colors associated with patriotic motifs such as gold and khaki.

The series incorporated representational images with an accordingly patriotic theme, such as American landscape photos and portraits of founding fathers. Often these images were collaged from magazines and discarded posters, which called for a larger format than Wesselmann had used previously. As works began to approach a giant scale he approached advertisers directly to acquire billboards.

"Still Life #28" Tom Wesselmann pop art painting The Sidney Janis Gallery held the New Realist Exhibition in November 1962, which included works by the American artists Jim Dine, Robert Indiana, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, George Segal, and Andy Warhol. Through Henry Geldzahler Wesselmann met Alex Katz, who offered him a show at the Tanager Gallery. Wesselmann's first solo show was held there later that year, representing both the large and small Great American Nude collages.

In 1962 Richard Bellamy offered him a one-man exhibition at the Green Gallery. Tom Wesselmann never liked his inclusion in American Pop Art, pointing out how he made an aesthetic use of everyday objects and not a criticism of them as consumer objects: “I dislike labels in general and 'Pop' in particular, especially because it overemphasizes the material used. There does seem to be a tendency to use similar materials and images, but the different ways they are used denies any kind of group intention”

Tom Wesselmann had begun working on a new series of still lifes. experimenting with assemblage as well as collage. In Still Life #28 (shown here) he included a television set that was turned on, “interested in the competitive demands that a TV, with moving images and giving off light and sound, can make on painted portions” In 1980 he published a treatise about his artistic development under the pseudonym Slim Stealingworth. In 1983 first 'Metal Works' were produced, which were based on the artist's drawings and sketches and which are still in the centre of the artist's interest. In 1994 a comprehensive retrospective took place at the Kunsthalle in Tübingen.

Tom Wesselmann died in New York on 17 December 2004. His choice of trivial motifs, their monumental realization, reduction to stereotypes, sexual emblematic as well as the use of bright colors made Wesselmann a co-founder of the American Pop-Art during the 1960s.
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Tom Wesselmann
American Pop Artist. "Still Life #28"  "Smoker Study #39" "Great American Nude number 27"