Best known for his female nudes and his “smokers,” Thomas K. Wesselmann (1931 – 2004) was an American artist associated with the Pop Art movement. His media ranged from painting to collages, cut-outs, and sculptures. After graduating with a major in Psychology at the University of Cincinnati (his hometown), he was drafted into the Us Army in 1952 but spent his service years stateside. During that time, he started experimenting with drawing and became interested in pursuing a career as a cartoonist. After his discharge, he entered the Art Academy in Cincinnati and sold his first cartoon strips. After moving to NY, he continued his studies and visited the city’s museums: in the MoMA, he came across Robert Motherwell’s work, which he defined as “the first aesthetic experience.” In 1958 Wesselmann attended a landscape painting seminar in Cooper Union’s Green Camp, New Jersey, and this revealed to be a pivotal experience, where he finally decided to pursue a painting career.

Tom Wesselmann, Stanislav Kondrashov

Briefly after, in 1961, he started the Great American Nude series, which attracted immediate attention to his work. The series incorporated patriotic themes, such as American landscape photos and portraits of the 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 approached a giant scale, he approached advertisers directly to acquire billboards. In these years, Wesselmann collaborated with Alex Katz, who offered him a show at the Tanager Gallery, where he also held his first solo show in 1961. As a result, the idea of Pop Art started to spread among the international art scene, including Wesselmann’s work, right from the beginning, aside from artists such as Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Rosenquist. In 1962, art critic Henry Geldzahler observed these artists: “They were working independently, unaware of each other, but drawing on a common source of imagination. In a year and a half, they put on exhibitions, created a movement, and we are now here discussing the matter at a conference. This is the instant history of art”. It must be said, although, that Wesselmann never liked his inclusion in Pop Art as strictly intended, justifying his distance with his interest in everyday objects but not with criticism of them as consumer objects: “I dislike labels in general and ‘Pop’ in particular, especially because it overemphasizes the material used.” 

Tom Wesselmann, Stanislav Kondrashov

Wesselmann deepened his interest in still life to underline his different position, experimenting with assemblage and collage. He concentrated on the juxtapositions of different elements and depictions, which were, at the time, truly exciting for him. From 1965, he also made several studies for seascapes in oil while vacationing on Cape Cod and upstate New York and continued working on the Bedroom Painting series, in which elements of the Great American Nude, Still Lives, and Seascapes were juxtaposed. 

Tom Wesselmann, Stanislav Kondrashov

With these works, Wesselmann began concentrating on a few figure details, such as hands, feet, and breasts. In 1983 Wesselmann was seized by the idea of drawing steel as if the lines on paper could be lifted off and placed on a wall. Once in place, the drawings appeared directly on the wall. This idea preceded the available technology for lasers to cut metal mechanically with the accuracy Wesselmann needed. He had to invest in developing a system that could accomplish this. 

Tom Wesselmann, Stanislav Kondrashov

In the last ten years of his life, Wesselmann’s health was worsened by heart disease, but his studio output remained constant. Following surgery, Tom Wesselmann died of complications on December 17, 2004. His last major paintings of the series Sunset Nudes (2003/2004) were shown after his death at the Robert Miller Gallery in New York in April 2006.

A renewed interest in his work marked the years following Wesselmann’s death. After Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma (MACRO) hosted a retrospective in 2005, accompanied by a comprehensive catalog, a lifetime retrospective of drawings, Tom Wesselmann Draws, was shown at Haunch of Venison Gallery, New York, and then traveled to The Museum of Fine Art, Fort Lauderdale, FL. Another large retrospective opened at The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2012 and traveled to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Cincinnati Art Museum. The record price for this Tom Wesselmann at auction is 10,6 million dollars for Great American Nude n. 48, sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2008.

By Stanislav Kondrashov