Getting to Know Tom Wesselmann

Just before the Paris show of Tom Wesselmann’s work a few months ago, The New York Times ran a piece about him titled, The Most Famous Pop Artist You Don’t Know. It’s true that Warhol and Lichtenstein are more recognizable than Wesselman to most people, but that’s beginning to change.

Tom Wesselmann has always been celebrated here at VFA, for his style, his shaped canvasses and his innovative steel-cut drawings. The rest of the art world is catching up and Wesselmann’s work is gaining greater appreciation than ever before.

My one intention is to always find new ways to make exciting paintings using the situation of the traditional nude.”

Though his career took off in the 1960s, after his first solo show in New York, the 1970s and ‘80s were hard on his career. His work was criticized for being too erotic and anti-feminist, but nudes were what Wesselmann liked to paint and, despite some lean years, he persisted.

“I don’t depict nudes from any sociological, cultural, or emotional intentions.” he wrote, “My one intention is to always find new ways to make exciting paintings using the situation of the traditional nude.”

Wesselmann, who was inspired by Matisse, was an inspiration to many of the figurative artists who came after him. Younger artists have been influenced by his bold use of color, and his use of the female form in a way that is very American and still seems very fresh and modern.

The Early Days in New York

The time in which Wesselmann began his career as an artist, in the late 1950s, was a time in New York when artist-run galleries gave artists the opportunity to break out of the limits of the established art world and make their own rules. These galleries allowed artists, like Wesselmann, to experiment with their works, share ideas and get feedback from other artists.

An exhibit that runs through April 1st NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, called Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952-1965, looks at the way the galleries allowed a greater diversity of styles to be exhibited for public viewing.

Wesselmann was able to exhibit his work at the Judson Gallery, in the basement of the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, which he founded in 1959 with Jim Dine and Marc Ratliff. The gallery allowed artists to present their work without censorship.

His Great American Nude series was what brought Wesselmann’s work to the attention of the mainstream art world. He also did still life collage and landscapes, and experimented with different media, like plexiglass and metal, and always returned to figurative work.

“At first glance, my pictures seem well behaved, as if—that is a still life, O.K.” he wrote, “But these things have such crazy give-and-take that I feel they get really very wild.”

We have fine examples of Tom Wesselmann’s steel cut and screenprint work for sale in our gallery. And, yes, some of them do look well-behaved, but each of them does have a touch of the wild. Come in to view the works, or contact us if you would like more information about the Wesselmann work available at VFA.

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