Regularly, Artsper examines the practice of the great personalities of contemporary art and analyses for you two artworks: one from the early days of their career and a later one. The arrival of Tom Wesselman on our website is the ideal opportunity to quickly examine this giant figure of American art.
Tom Wesselman was born in Cincinnati, in February 1931. From 1949 to 1951, he studied at the University of Ohio, and then went to the University of Cincinnati to study psychology. During his military service, which started in 1952, he made his first cartoons, and worked for a while making comics. In 1954, he joined the Academy of Cincinnati, and sold his first comic. In 1956 he moved to New York, and got to know and admire Robert Motherwell’s work, especially Elegy to the Spanish Republic. He also admires the major figure of American action painting, Willem de Kooning. 1958 marks a turning point for Wesselmann. A trip to New Jersey convinces him to pursue a career as a painter rather than a cartoon maker.
In 1961, Wesselmann began his Greats American Nudes series, which brought him to the spotlight of the art world. For this series he used a reduced palette, including “patriotic” colors, such as blue, red, white, gold and khaki. The series is based on figurative images, with a patriotic background, such as American landscapes or images of the founding fathers. These images are often taken from magazines and newspapers, (a technique used by pop artists, both English and American) and draws Wesselmann to use a larger format than before. As these paintings/collages become larger, he decides to exhibit them directly on billboards. In 1962, the Great American Nudes series is on show at the Green Gallery.
Very quickly, Wesselman takes his distance from American pop art, and explains to those who want the label his work that he does not criticize mass consumption, but he wants to “esthetize” the objects of everyday life.
Over the last ten years of his life, Wesselmann suffered from heart disease, but continued to work in his studio. At first he worked in an abstract style that can be placed in the lineage of Mondrian, but an exploration of Matisse’s work reduced little by little this barrier between figuration and abstraction. In the 1960s, Wesselmann saw the show Gouaches Découpées at the MoMA and got to see the paintings of the French masters. Up to his death, in 2004, when he died of complications from his illness, Wesselmann’s work was deeply influenced by Matisse’s latest work, and especially by his cut paper collages.