Wesselmann, Tom

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Wesselmann, Tom

(b. 23 February 1931 in Cincinnati, Ohio; d. 17 December 2004 in New York City), pop artist noted for his treatment of the stylized eroticized female nude.

Wesselmann was the son of Edwin William Wesselmann and Grace Estelle Wesselmann. From 1949 to 1951 Wesselmann attended Hiram College in Ohio and in 1951 the University of Cincinnati, where he studied psychology. Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1952 for the Korean War, he became frustrated by military regulation and drew satirical cartoons. From 1954 to 1956 he studied at the University of Cincinnati, receiving a BA in psychology in 1956. He also took courses in 1956 at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. In 1956 Wesselmann moved to New York City, where from 1956 to 1959 he studied at the Cooper Union Art School and supported himself by teaching in a Brooklyn high school and working as a cartoonist for newspapers and magazines. In or about 1949 he married Dorothy “Dot” Irish; they divorced after seven years. In 1957 he met Claire Selley, a fellow student, whom he married on 27 November 1963. They had two children (some sources say three children).

In the late 1950s Wesselmann made large collages using fare tickets, torn pieces of packaging, and bits of paper, including slips with notes—a little reminiscent of the earlier collages of the German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters. In 1960 came collages created on board with paper representations of wall hangings, wallpaper, and bits of furniture, suggestive of the interior of a room, sometimes including the painted human figure, nude or clothed. In 1961 Wesselmann began his Great American Nude series with its bodies of flattened naked females fully splayed out or with the torso cut off at the waist. Several factors contributed to this direction. Around 1960–1961 he was impressed by the overt treatment of sexuality in the books Tropic of Cancer (1934) and Tropic of Capricorn (1939) by Henry Miller as well as by the soft-porn depictions in Playboy magazine. His relationship with Selley alleviated his feelings of repression, as did his sincere commitment to psychoanalysis.

The women in Wesselmann’s Great American Nude series are shown with flat, unmodulated surfaces except for hardened nipples and heavily lipsticked mouths on otherwise featureless faces, as in Great American Nude #53 (1964). These impersonal nudes managed to be at the same time distant and shamelessly provocative. These large paintings, some more than five feet in length, brought to mind the treatment of the women (who were not faceless) in slick pornographic magazines. Selley was the usual model. The artist pointed out, “I made poses as metaphors for our sexual intimacy and attraction. They represent her sexually, not necessarily her.” Wesselmann also painted clever allusions to a woman’s sexuality, without directly showing the sexual parts of her body. In Bedroom Painting #7 (1967–1969), displaying a gaudiness that was purposefully of artificial things, he juxtaposed open plastic flowers (suggestive of vaginas), fake fur, and toes of a woman’s plastic foot (suggestive of phalluses). He sought an “all-over” composition with no sense of depth, with elements tightly interlocked. (In doing this, Wesselmann fit in with the aesthetic of such artists of the 1960s as the post-painterly abstractionist Ellsworth Kelly and the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.) As he went on, he observed that his colors “became flatter, cleaner, brighter; edges became harder, clearer.” Among the artists he admired was the Flemish painter Hans Memling (c. 1430–1494), whose emotionless figures and abstract qualities appealed to Wesselmann.

In December 1961 Wesselmann was given his first one-man show at the Tanager Gallery in New York City, at which time the dealer Ivan Karp made him aware of the work of the pop artists Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist. In 1962 Wesselmann was included in the influential New Realists show in the Sidney Janis Gallery, and this helped propel his reputation. In 1966 he was given a one-man show in the Janis Gallery; more than twelve followed.

In 1983 Wesselmann began to make works in metal. These featured not only nudes but also still lifes and landscapes. The pieces originated with quick sketches or cardboard models that were transferred manually or electronically onto steel plates with the shapes cut out by means of a laser beam. These enlarged his repertoire, as had his overlarge blank beer cans, radios, and other fake exteriors of objects resting on a shallow shelf made in the 1960s, but it is for his nudes that Wesselmann was best known. By appearance, the artist—tall and gaunt, with a touch of the ascetic about him—hardly seemed the type to ogle women.

By the mid-1960s Wesselmann was recognized as a major pop artist. He attained an international reputation, and from 1994 to 1996 his retrospective exhibition toured Europe in Brussels, Belgium; Berlin, Germany; Paris, France; Madrid, Spain; and elsewhere. His work is in the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and many other museums worldwide. Wesselmann died of complications from heart surgery.

In showing his nudes in inviting positions as blank schemata with only the erogenous zones indicated, Wesselmann succeeded in visualizing the narrow space that can exist between erotic stimulation and emptiness.

Sam Hunter, Tom Wesselmann (1994), includes extensive text as well as excellent illustrations of the nudes and a good bibliography. Thomas Buchsteiner and Otto Letze, eds., Tom Wesselmann (1996), is the catalogue accompanying the exhibition tour to eleven European museums from 1994 to 1996 and includes short, informative essays. Danilo Eccher, et al., Tom Wesselmann (2004), the catalogue of a traveling exhibition in Italy, does not include some of the artist’s major pieces. An obituary is in the New York Times (20 Dec. 2004).

Abraham A. Davidson