Tom Wesselmann - Career in The 1960s

Career in The 1960s

1959-1964 - 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. He began to teach art at a public school in Brooklyn, and later at the High School of Art and Design.

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. 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. About the same time, Ivan Karp of the Leo Castelli Gallery put Wesselmann in touch with several collectors and talked to him about Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist’s works. These Wesselmann viewed without noting any similarities with his own {S. Stealingworth, p. 25}.

While not a cohesive movement, the idea of Pop Art (a name coined by Lawrence Alloway and others) was gradually spreading among international art critics and the public. In As Henry Geldzahler observed: “About a year and a half ago I saw the works of Wesselmann..., Warhol, Rosenquist and Lichtenstein in their studios (it was more or less July 1961). They were working independently, unaware of each other, but drawing on a common source of imagination. In the space of a year and a half they put on exhibitions, created a movement and we are now here discussing the matter in a conference. This is instant history of art, a history of art that became so aware of itself as to make a leap that went beyond art itself”.

The Sidney Janis Gallery held the New Realists 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; and Europeans such as Arman, Enrico Baj, Christo, Yves Klein, Tano Festa, Mimmo Rotella, Jean Tinguely, and Mario Schifano. It followed the Nouveau Réalisme exhibition at the Galerie Rive Droite in Paris, and marked the international debut of the artists who soon gave rise to what came to be called Pop Art in Britain and The United States and Nouveau Réalisme on the European continent. Wesselmann took part in the New Realist show with some reservations, exhibiting two 1962 works: Still life #17 and Still life #22.

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”.

That year, Wesselmann had begun working on a new series of still lifes. experimenting with assemblage as well as collage. In Still Life #28 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” He concentrated on the juxtapositions of different elements and depictions, which were at the time truly exciting for him: “Not just the differences between what they were, but the aura each had with it... A painted pack of cigarettes next to a painted apple wasn’t enough for me. They are both the same kind of thing. But if one is from a cigarette ad and the other a painted apple, they are two different realities and they trade on each other... This kind of relationship helps establish a momentum throughout the picture... At first glance, my pictures seem well behaved, as if – that is a still life, O.K. But these things have such crazy give-and-take that I feel they get really very wild”. He married Claire Selley in November 1963.

In 1964 Ben Birillo, an artist and business partner of gallery owner Paul Bianchini, contacted Wesselmann and other Pop artists with the goal of organizing The American Supermarket at the Bianchini Gallery in New York. This was an installation of a large supermarket where Pop works (Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup, Watts’s colored wax eggs etc.) were shown among real food and neon signs. In the same year Wesselmann began working on landscapes, including one that includes the noise of a Volkswagen starting up. The first shaped canvas nudes also appeared this year.

1965-1970

His works in these years: Great American Nude #53, Great American Nude #57, show an accentuated, more explicit, sensuality, as though celebrating the rediscovered sexual fulfilment of his new relationship. He carried on working on his landscapes, but also made the Great American Nude #82, reworking the nude in a third dimension not defined by drawn lines but by medium: molded plexiglass modeled on the female figure, then painted. His compositional focus also became more daring, narrowing down to isolate a single detail: the Mouth series began in 1965, his Seascapes began the following year. Two other new subjects also appeared: Bedroom Painting, and Smoker Study, the latter of which developed from observation of his model for the Mouth series. The Smoker Study series of works would become one of the most recurrent themes in the 1970s.

Beginning in 1965, Wesselmann made several studies for seascapes in oil while vacationing in Cape Cod and upstate New York. In his New York City studio, he used an old projector to enlarge them into large-format works. This series of views, called the Drop-Out series were constructed from the negative space around a breast. The breast and torso frame one side of the image while the arm and the leg form the other two sides. This series of works would become one of the most recurrent themes in the 1970s. He started working on shaped canvases and opted for increasingly large formats.

He worked constantly on the Bedroom Painting series, in which elements of the Great American Nude, Still Lifes and Seascapes were juxtaposed. With these works Wesselmann began to concentrate on a few details of the figure such as hands, feet, and breasts, surrounded by flowers and objects. The Bedroom Paintings shifted the focus and scale of the attendant objects around a nude; these objects are small in relation to the nude, but become major, even dominant elements when the central element is a body part. The breast of a concealed woman appeared in a box among Wesselmann's sculpted still life elements in a piece entitled Bedroom Tit Box, a key work that “...in its realness and internal scale (the scale relationships between the elements) represents the basic idea of the Bedroom Painting”.

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