Tom Wesselmann

Pop artist sidelined for his earthiness

Tom Wesselmann, painter, printmaker and sculptor: born Cincinnati, Ohio 23 February 1931; married first Dot Irish (marriage dissolved), second 1963 Claire Selley (one son, two daughters); died New York 17 December 2004.

Tom Wesselmann was one of a remarkable group of artists, all destined to be pioneers of the Pop Art movement, who spent their formative years in the half-industrial, half-agricultural midwestern state of Ohio.

The oldest, Roy Lichtenstein, was born in New York in 1923 but moved at the age of 16 to Columbus, Ohio, to train as an artist, later painting in Cleveland from 1951 to 1957; R.B. Kitaj was born in 1932 in Columbus, where he remained until 1941; and Jim Dine was born in 1935, four years after Wesselmann, in the same city, Cincinnati, on the Kentucky border. Perhaps it was the state's remarkable museums that encouraged its native talent to blossom, or maybe it was just chance: for Wesselmann, in fact, the route into art was a far from conventional one. It was not until he was well into his twenties that he considered becoming a painter.

Wesselmann studied at Hiram College in Ohio from 1949 to 1951, before entering the University of Cincinnati in 1951 to study Psychology. A year later, he was forced to interrupt his studies when he was drafted into the US Army. He married for the first time during his two years of service and, to express his irritation at army life, began creating humorous cartoons through which he discovered his ability to draw and to express himself through visual means.

When he completed his stint in the army, he returned to Cincinnati to complete his psychology degree and, for the first time, began taking art courses at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. On deciding that he wanted to make a career as a cartoonist, he followed a tutor's advice to enrol at the Cooper Union in New York, both because no tuition fees were charged there and because of the many opportunities offered by New York-based magazines to publish cartoons. From autumn 1956 to summer 1959 Wesselmann took a wide range of courses at the Cooper Union, including life drawing, a practice that was soon to serve him so well in the creation of his "Great American Nude" series that he instigated in 1961.

Wesselmann claimed to have heard only of one living artist, the painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell, at the time of his arrival in New York, but he quickly informed himself about modern art by visiting the downtown galleries. By the time of his graduation, he had decided to devote himself not to cartooning but to painting. Yet his graphic flair and fluency in drawing, his devotion to the human figure, a dry sense of humour and his ease at communicating with the general public through his imagery were all to prove important factors in his particular brand of Pop Art.

In 1959 Wesselmann made the first of a series of tiny collages in which he established some of the methods and imagery of his mature art. Using motifs cut out from magazines alongside pieces of cloth and other found materials, and completing these with hand-drawn elements, he devised engaging vignettes of domestic life centring on the theme of the nude in the interior.

Although these were firmly grounded in long-standing European traditions, it was in these works that he first proposed the possibility of reflecting the immediacy of his own environment. Since all the talk in literary circles at the time was centred on the challenge of escaping European influences and of creating the Great American Novel, Wesselmann - with tongue only slightly in his cheek - greatly expanded his scale in 1961 for the first of many "Great American Nudes".

Mixing references to modern masters such as Matisse, Mondrian and Modigliani with blatantly prosaic details from contemporary American life, such as television, advertising, consumer products and fast food, he created a highly original hybrid form of painting and collage that brought him immediate attention and art- world success. His work was included in a number of the groundbreaking Pop Art exhibitions of 1962-63, including "New Realists" at the Sidney Janis Gallery and "The Popular Image" at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art.

Wesselmann's work of the 1960s - sexy, visually bold and brightly coloured, unpretentious and deeply mistrustful of theory - was quickly prized by collectors. If it was taken to the collective bosom of the general public, however, the ample bosoms that were such a striking feature of his pictures soon brought him criticism, too, from the nascent feminist movement, even though he felt strongly that he was celebrating sexuality rather than objectifying women.

Resolutely working-class and suspicious of intellectualising what for him was an intuitive activity, Wesselmann soon found himself becoming marginalised and even excluded from historical accounts of the period and even of the movement he helped shape. As recently as 1992, when he was left out of a museum survey exhibition called "Hand-painted Pop", he has been shamelessly sidelined by writers and curators who were either perplexed or embarrassed by the earthiness and blunt-speaking qualities of Wesselmann's art.

It shocks me still, given the many museum shows that have been accorded to his American Pop colleagues, that the only retrospective yet accorded to his paintings was the one I organised in Japan in 1993, which afterwards toured Europe in expanded form.

It did not help Wesselmann's position that he was so reluctant to play the expected games. He lived for some 35 years in the same relatively modest Lower Manhattan apartment, from where he walked six days a week to the vast studio where he put in long hours, stopping only briefly for his lunch of vegetarian hot dogs, popcorn, juice and seltzer.

He exhibited at the highly prestigious Sidney Janis Gallery from 1966 through to its closure three decades later, but made little effort to be seen at the glamorous art-world events where contacts are made and deals struck. He wrote about his work with a straightforward intelligence under the pseudonym Slim Stealingworth, even publishing a major monograph with that byline in 1980, but was shy and reluctant to appear on public panels or to pontificate about his art.

He spoke and behaved as he must always have done, never exchanging the denim shirt and jeans of his blue-collar origins for the designer suits of international art stars. He hated travelling or breaking his routine and, because of his fear of flying, almost never attended the openings of his own exhibitions outside New York. He was a devoted and even old-fashioned family man, continuing to refer to his wife Claire as a muse even when painting from other models.

His only real pastime outside the studio was writing country-and- western songs on his acoustic guitar, and it was a source of frustration and regret to him that he was never successful in carving out a second career for himself in this sphere. I sometimes had the feeling that he remained somewhat embarrassed at following what might seem to a working-class man like an unmasculine profession, and that his insistence on sexualised images of women derived in part from that discomfort.

Wesselmann's reputation perhaps suffered because of all of these things, and in particular because of his refusal to act the expected part of an urban sophisticate: I remember hearing comments, however affectionately meant, about the fact that he ate dinner at an unfashionably early hour. Yet it was precisely his strong sense of being rooted in ordinary life that brought such authority, authenticity and sense of generosity to his art. Although there is much good-humour in his paintings, there is never the slightest hint of condescension or mockery. Another upside, for those who knew him, is that he was unfailingly courteous, easy-going, and totally lacking in the malice or career envy that blights so much of what passes for human interaction in the art world.

There can be no doubt that Wesselmann's art was as innovative and extreme, and as brilliantly conceived and composed as that of any of his immediate contemporaries. His work of the Sixties was astonishing in its scope and invention. In quick succession, he devised the still-life "Bathtub Collages" and kitchen interiors that he made as early as 1962, using found objects such as promotional items, refrigerator doors or towels appended to the surface; the billboard-sized collage paintings that followed a year later, emblazoned with garish advertising images and brightly hued patterns; the "Landscapes" from which full-scale representations of life-sized cars were projected; a series of "Seascapes", some on shaped canvases, in which female breasts loom large in simplified silhouette over the horizon; a series of disembodied lipsticked "Mouths", with or without post-coital cigarettes, that conveyed an almost insolent delight in sensual and sexual pleasure; and the increasingly voyeuristic scenes of intimacy labelled "Bedroom Paintings", which from the late 1960s vied for attention with his still-continuing series of "Great American Nudes".

Much as he hated the notion of documenting the world around him or of functioning as a kind of visual sociologist, the fact remains that this 10-year run of work will stay deeply embedded in the collective psyche as emblematic of the vitality, openness and free spirit that we continue to associate with the Sixties.

Often prone to accusations of vulgarity, Wesselmann defiantly played up such aspects of his art in the 1970s, particularly in works containing freestanding painted elements on a gigantic scale. It was not until 1983, when he made the first of an extended series of works from cut-out steel or aluminium, that he was able to revitalise the terms of his painting and to do so with a particular lightness of touch.

The art world was (and is) slow to accept these late works, but for me they remain among his most visually and conceptually elegant artefacts: greatly enlarged from quick pen sketches, fabricated under his supervision and then often painted in deliriously festive colours, they compress the initial spontaneous idea and its final realisation into a single harmonious object. He explored multiple variations on the format, venturing into sculpture as well as into his first pure abstractions.

Nearly 20 years after instigating this new art form, about which he remained nervously proprietorial, he returned to oil on canvas for a highly successful and much admired reprise of the "Great American Nudes" with which he had first made his name as a young man in the early 1960s.

Marco Livingstone

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