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Monday, March 7, 2016

Tom Wesselmann

Bedroom Painting #38, 1978, Tom Wesselmann
Tom Wesselmann, Self-portrait (bottom-right)
When a young artist, bearing an art school diploma in his or her hip pocket, casts about the bewildering art amusement park landscape in search of a brass ring to grab hold of, their choice is one of the most important de-cisions of their life. It's right up there with whom to marry, whether to divorce, and which pro football team to embrace. Each "latest thing" is like a merry-go-round that starts slowly, builds speed, then inevitably slows to a virtual stop. Ideally the artist wants to jump on board as the revolutions begin, while the style is young, and seats on the attraction are plentiful. The move-ment builds momentum, the artists hangs on for dear life, enjoying the thrills of success. Then, as the movement becomes stale and slows down, the artist finds the need to go in search of something newer and more exciting....perhaps an art roller coaster. All those metaphors aptly fit the situation a young Cincinnati artist named Tom Wesselmann faced back in the early 1960s as he graduated from the Art Academy of Cincinnati.

Still-Life No 35, 1963, Tom Wesselmann
Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 1953-54,
Robert Motherwell
Already having a degree in psychology from before his stint in the army, Wesselmann could have jumped on board the Ab-stract Expressionist movement. He very much admired the work of Willem de Kooning. However, by that time action painting and all that went with it were starting to fade. Instead, Wesselmann mov-ed to New York where he con-tinued his studies at the Cooper Union. While there he took in the many museums and SoHo gal-leries trying to choose as to which art movement (and there were dozens of them at the time) looked the most promising. On a visit to the city's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Wesselmann was captivated by Robert Motherwell's painting, Elegy to the Spanish Republic (above, right).

Great American Nude No. 36, 1965, Tom Wesselmann,
(they weren't all totally nude).
Although Wesselmann co-founded an art galley in New York along with Marc Ratliff and fellow Cincinnatian, Jim Dine, he made his living teaching high school art. In 1961, Wesselmann's series Great American Nude (above) first brought him to the attention of the art world. The series used images with a patriotic theme, such as American landscape photos and portraits of founding fathers collaged from magazines and discarded posters, which demanded a larger format as time went on. As works began to approach a giant scale he approached advertisers to acquire billboards. Though offered a show at the Tanager Gallery. Wesselmann chose to install his first solo show at the Green Gallery in 1962. About the same time, various dealers put Wesselmann in touch with several collectors who compared him to Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist’s works. Wesselmann took a look at their paintings but saw no similarities to his own (or didn't want to) .

Still-Life No. 20, Tom Wesselmann
Smoker, 1 (Mouth, 12),
1967, Tom Wesselmann
The idea of Pop Art (though the movement was unaware of itself) was spreading among international art critics one of whom noted: “About a year and a half ago I saw the works of Wes-selmann, Warhol, Rosenquist, and Lichtenstein in their studios. They were working inde-pendently, unaware of each other, but drawing on a common source of im-agination. In the space of a year and a half they put on exhibitions, created a movement, and we are now here dis-cussing the matter in a conference. This is instant [art history] that became so aware of itself as to make a leap that went beyond art itself." Wesselmann's Still-Life No. 30 (above) came the next year in which he went beyond painting everyday pop culture to using the real thing in its daily context.

Still-Life No. 30, April 1963, Tom Wesselmann. The media listed for this work tell much of the story: Oil, enamel and synthetic polymer paint on composition board with collage of printed advertisements, plastic flowers, refrigerator door, plastic replicas of 7-Up bottles, glazed and framed color reproduction, and stamped metal. That's some pretty heavy Pop Art.
The Sidney Janis Gallery held the New Realists exhibition late in 1962. They included works by the American artists Jim Dine, Robert Indiana, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, George Segal, and Andy Warhol, along with European artists like Christo, Yves Klein, and Jean Tanguy. Galleries in London and Paris followed suit, and soon the Pop Art merry-go-round was off and running. The only problem for Wesselmann was that, though he was aboard, all the others eclipsed his efforts to the point they became household names while Wesselmann, was relegated to the background noise in the movement. Perhaps this was because Wesselmann never really considered himself a Pop artist. In fact he rejected the movement as time went on, his work becoming much more abstract. He died in 2004.

Bedroom Painting #76, 1984-93, Oil on canvas on board with working TV, Tom Wesselmann.
The Bedroom series featured partially clad or nude women in somewhat erotic bedroom poses
The Denver Art Museum mounted a retrospective of Wesselmann's
work including this Pop sculpture version of one of his famous paintings


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