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Tom Wesselmann Photo

Tom Wesselmann

American Painter, Illustrator, Sculptor, and Collagist

Born: February 23, 1931 - Cincinnati, Ohio
Died: December 17, 2004 - New York City
Movements and Styles:
Pop Art
"I find sometimes I get so excited working, especially when starting new ideas; I get so excited that I get uncomfortable. It almost feels dangerous, like I'm flirting with something dangerous."
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Tom Wesselmann Signature
"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."
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Tom Wesselmann Signature
"When people began to talk all the time about Coca-Cola or the Campbell Soup cans and all that sort of stuff, I began to get very uneasy because that was subject-matter talk, and I was involved in important, aesthetic matters, I felt, not subject matter."
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Tom Wesselmann Signature
"The prime mission of my art, in the beginning, and continuing still, is to make figurative art as exciting as abstract art."
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Tom Wesselmann Signature
"For many years, drawing, especially from the nude, was a desperate attempt to capture something significant of the beauty of the woman I was confronted with. It was always frustrating because the beauty of the woman is so elusive."
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Tom Wesselmann Signature
"I'm on my way to becoming a totally abstract artist. No more nipples. No more flowers. All this time I thought my move away from de Kooning was in a straight line, now I'm beginning to see it as a complete circle."
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Tom Wesselmann Signature

Summary of Tom Wesselmann

Initially a cartoonist for men's magazines, Tom Wesselmann reduced the classical female nude to her essential components: lips, nips and pubes. His Venuses have tan lines. Cigarettes dangle from their rocket-red mouths. Their crisp outlines resonate with the immediacy of a neon sign. Like the nudes of Titian, Velasquez, or Rubens, Wesselmann's mid-century modern nudes sprawl across furniture in suggestive poses, awaiting a lover the viewer naturally assumes is him. Wesselmann's chief interest was not to draw attention to the subject, but "to make figurative art as exciting as abstract art." He succeeded brilliantly at this, and his work engages our senses - as Jim Dine told him before Wesselmann's first show in New York, "You may be one of America's great painters."


  • With its fetishistic isolation of erogenous zones (hair, lips, nipples, teeth, etc) Wesselmann's imagery reintroduces the ideal female form to art. Wesselmann's is a post-Abstract-Expressionist incarnation of the ideal body for the consumer age, something to be consumed like a bottle of beer, a tabloid, or a comic book. The most blatantly erotic of the Pop artists, Wesselmann connected commercialism and voyeurism with unprecedented force.
  • More directly and succinctly than that of any other artist, Wesselmann's work sums up the handoff of Pop from England to America, where Pop art gets bigger, bolder and cruder, almost as if responding to the geographic environment.
  • The influence of De Kooning on Wesselmann would be difficult to overestimate. An early infatuation with De Kooning led him to fuse the language of billboards with Abstract form. In 1994 Wesselmann admitted "In my early days, I was so envious of [Willem] de Kooning that I almost stopped being a painter." De Kooning's famous Women series of the 1950s was essentially the impetus for Wesselmann's life's work.
  • Never at ease with the Pop art label, Wesselmann felt that he lacked the drive toward cultural critique that characterized the movement: "My culture was what I used" he explained. "But I didn't use it for cultural reasons, it was not a cultural comment."
  • Wesselmann is fascinating to compare with someone like Claes Oldenburg, whose suggestive Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks (1969) also substitutes the part for the whole, but in a more open-ended way. His lack of subtlety is part of what makes Wesselmann Wesselmann.

Biography of Tom Wesselmann

Tom Wesselmann Photo

Wesselmann was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on February 23, 1931. While little about his early years is a matter of public record, he has stated emphatically that his hometown was not a place he felt he could develop as an artist: "Cincinnati was a negative influence on me as far as art is concerned. In Cincinnati, I was unaware of the existence of art. I thought all artists painted like Norman Rockwell." Elsewhere, he elaborated, "You can look back and see how dreadfully commonplace I was." He would not develop a particularly strong interest in art until well into adulthood.

Important Art by Tom Wesselmann

Progression of Art

Great American Nude #21

Wesselmann's earliest and best-known series positions a time-honored theme in juxtaposition with contemporary signs of consumer culture and politics. After a dream concerning the phrase "red, white, and blue", he decided to paint nudes in this patriotic palette, incorporating gold and khaki (colors with military overtones). This resulted in the series now known as the "Great American Nudes." Over-the-top patriotic decor introduces a comic element (the insistent red white and blue palette, star and stripe motifs on the wall, red curtain, and blue and white sheets. On the wall behind her is a portrait of the recently elected President John F. Kennedy (a magazine clipping). Wesselmann's then-girlfriend, later-wife Claire Selley modeled for this painting.

The vibrant color and stylized pose evoke Matisse, and the single facial feature, a toothy grin, is a direct reference to de Kooning, who famously pasted the mouths from cigarette ads onto his canvases of the 1950s. Her devil-may-care expression, juxtaposed with Kennedy's formal attire and earnest gaze, suggests that both are equally contrived. Cleverly arranged pairings between the private space of the bedroom and public sphere of contemporary politics are a hallmark of Wesselmann's oeuvre.

Casein, Enamel, Graphite, Printed Paper, Fabric, Linoleum and Embroidery on Board - Mugrabi Collection / Estate of Tom Wesselmann


Still Life #35

Though Wesselmann rejected the label of Pop art, this piece is an iconic work of the 1960s that fits squarely within the movement. Pop art consciously moved away from the Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s, instead embracing cultural specificity. From just a glance, we know this is an image of mid-20th century America. Yet it also references traditional European still lifes that depicted commonplace objects - fruit, vegetables, or flowers - in a manner that highlighted their unique beauty. In this canvas, Royal Crown cola, factory-made white bread, canned stew, and a packet of cigarettes appear in brilliant colors on a table with a striped cloth. On the left, a window affords us a view of a commercial jet soaring over an emerald sea against a clear blue sky. Almost all of the goods are cheap, generic foods, manufactured and packaged with distinct branding and logos. Even the lemons, with their artificial hue, seem as though they could have been produced in a factory. A literal feast for the eyes, this painting allows us to indulge in the fantasy that all these things taste as good as they look.

Oil and Collage on Canvas - Estate of Tom Wesselmann


Smoker, 1 (Mouth, 12)

Wesselmann began his series of Mouth paintings in 1965. This large canvas depicts a monumental mouth with a cigarette dangling from the lower lip. A large trail of gray smoke wafts from the tip, and the full red lips contrasts sharply with the white teeth. The image is at once inviting, remote, and unsettling, and everything is too perfect to be real. In its focus on one part of the body, this enhances the element of fetishism present in Wesselmann's earlier work. He would continue this line of inquiry into the 1970s in both his Smoker Study and Seascapes series - in which a single body part, such as a foot or breast, is the primary focus of the composition.

Rather than representing a specific person or even imitating an advertisement, the disembodied mouth functions as a kind of fertility symbol for the modern age, and also as a kind of self-portrait. The disembodied mouth is unmistakably Wesselmann, a kind of visual calling card for the artist. In fact, Wesselmann's Mouth series almost certainly inspired one of the most iconic band logos of all time, The Rolling Stones cover for Sticky Fingers (designed in 1971 by the designer Ed Pasche, who would have been familiar with Wesselmann's work).

Oil on canvas, in two parts - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Bedroom Painting #76

While he insisted there was no psychic depth to his art, Wesselmann's paintings work a slow magic on our senses. Associations between the landscape and the nude persist throughout Wesselmann's work. The golden curves of the nude rise from the nipple to the crown of the head like mountains in the sun; elements of blue decor in the background mimic sky. With the Bedroom Paintings, Wesselmann brings together elements of his Great American Nudes, Still Lifes and Seascapes series, shifting the scale and focus of objects surrounding a nude figure. Several striking compositions of the 1980s juxtapose painted material with real objects. The inclusion of a functional television in this work underscores the device's ubiquity in everyday life, not always watched but often running, and as much a part of the flow of everyday life as the staring cat and swooning mistress. He began the Bedroom Paintings in the late 1960s, and from 1978 onward they adhered to the diagonal structure seen here, with a woman's face in the foreground.

Oil on canvas on board, with functional television - Private Collection


Monica Sitting with Mondrian

This piece is one of several from the 1980s and 1990s that incorporated iconic paintings by other artists, including Lichtenstein, Warhol, and Matisse, juxtaposing Wesselmann's nudes with these famous earlier works. Made later in his career, they have a kind of retrospective quality that might be seen as part victory lap, part walk down memory lane in a reflective journey back to his roots as a student of modern art.

Here, a lithe and nubile model (Monica) is seated on a pink sofa (or bed) in front of an abstract painting by Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian, another of Wesselmann's idols. While sketchy in appearance the material is metal which has then been filled with paint. Wesselmann arrived at this technique with the help of the Lipincott Foundry in Pennsylvania, where he began to produce work made out of metal in the 1980s, which he referred to as aluminum doodles. "The idea was to take a small doodle and blow it up large, as if it had just been made on the wall," Wesselmann explained. Entitled the Steel Drawings series, these works inspired excitement and confusion when they made their debut. For instance, the curators at the Whitney wrote to ask why he had labeled these pieces drawings and not sculptures. His response was this was "an example of life not necessarily being as simple as one might wish,"and continued, "in the long run ...what it is will not matter. What matters, of course, is it is beautiful, a vivid expression of a valid idea, presented in a specific form that really has never been seen before." The laser-sharp edges of the gleaming, saturated color in these late works in metal brings home the overarching aim of Wesselmann's work: to revive idealized beauty for the age of advertising.

Enamel on steel - Estate of Tom Wesselmann


Sunset Nude with Matisse Odalisque

Painted the year before his death, this exuberant painting is a riot of bright, overlapping planes of color, and sums up Wesselmann's life-long ambition to paint an American nude that rivaled that of Matisse. In homage to his favorite early-20th-century artist, Wesselmann paints two women reclining in a classic pose favored by Matisse. The background figure, an obvious homage to the French master, closely mimics his odalisques of the 1920s in everything from the hairstyle to the minimal shading in brown against faintly modulated peach skin tones. The foreground figure is 100% Wesselmann, with its flat, unmodulated arc of yellow hair, tan to the point of orange, and sunlight bouncing off the skin like a racing stripe. The artist had been particularly moved by an exhibition of Matisse's work he saw at MoMA in 1960, and here he revisits both that early source of inspiration while incorporating many of the evolutions of his own technique. The image brings the viewer's attention to the ways in which standards of beauty have changed over the course of the century, and also serves as a reminder of the continuing relevance of modernist art in the postmodern era.

Oil on canvas - Estate of Tom Wesselmann

Similar Art

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Tom Wesselmann
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Irving Sandler
    Irving Sandler
  • Sidney Janis
    Sidney Janis
  • Henry Geldzahler
    Henry Geldzahler
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Jen Glennon

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Ruth Epstein

"Tom Wesselmann Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jen Glennon
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Ruth Epstein
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First published on 22 Mar 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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