Tom Wesselmann
Year, Birthplace 1931, United States
Year, Place of death 2004, United States
Tom Wesselmann studied at the Hiram College of Ohio between 1945 and 1951, later following the psychology course at Cincinnati University. During his military service in Korea, he made satirical sketches about his life in the army. When he returned, in 1954, he decided to study art, initially at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, later at the Cooper Union School for Arts and Architecture in New York. He then made a living as a cartoonist for newspapers and magazines and by teaching courses in Brooklyn. During a visit to the MoMA, he was impressed by the works of Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning. In 1957 he met Claire Shelley, a fellow student at the Cooper Union School who became his model and, in 1963, his wife. At the end of the 1950s, Wesselmann created small collages that can be seen as precursors to the Great American Nude and Still Life series which he would paint for a good part of his life, using collages of images cut from magazines and found objects, on a large scale. Rejecting abstract expressionism and minimalist art, he wanted to bridge the gap between art and life, between erudite culture and popular culture, to imitate – in some way – the consumerist society that was rapidly developing while subtly skirting round it so as to better criticise it with an ironic eye. He met Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg. The Great American Nudes, of which he painted around a hundred versions until 1967, were inspired by the sterile pin-up images found in magazines. He portrayed nudes that were simultaneously provocative and depersonalised, reduced to the state of sex symbols posing in a banal environment, verging on kitsch. He would bring together, in the same picture, reproductions of the works of Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian or Auguste Renoir, when he did not paint interpretations of these works himself. In his Still Life series, he exclusively reproduced products that were commonly consumed in daily life (a bottle of Canada Dry, asparagus sauce, a packet of cigarettes, ice cream...), presented as symbols of consumerist society set in very ‘middle American' interiors. His first solo exhibition, at the Tanager Gallery in New York in 1961, presented his Little Great American Nudes, in which he combined figures inspired by Matisse and the stars and stripes. A year later, he created his first assemblages under the title Still Life. In 1962, he participated in a group exhibition entitled The New Realists (at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, the gallery where later, in 1966, he would present a solo exhibition), which was considered to be the first public manifestation of American pop art. This exhibition, which made him famous, marked the start of his international career. At the time, he ranked alongside Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol as one of the three best-known pillars of pop art in the United States. He would work in series, exploring the themes of the ‘American Dream’, beginning with a series called Bathtub Collages, scenes of daily life in a normal bathroom. In 1964, he painted the Bedroom Paintings, scenes in bedrooms; Landscapes, depicting advertising images; and portraits of Smokers, until the start of the 1980s. 1981 was marked by the publication of a monograph by one Slim Stealingworth, entitled Tom Wesselmann. Hiding behind the pseudonym Stealingworth was Wesselmann himself! In 1983, he produced Metal Works, in which the metal was cut with laser and then painted with acrylic. Over the years, the eroticism of his nude paintings intensified, with enlarged details of the female anatomy and the inclusion of real elements such as down and skins... in his final years, he devoted himself to the Blue Nudes, in tribute to Matisse’s Blue Nude, his lifelong reference point, in which he once again adopted the technique of cut-out papers. Shortly before his death, he introduced a final reference to Matisse in 2003 with Sunset Nude with Matisse Odalisque. AC