Tom Wesselmann

About the Artist

Tom Wesselmann, 1962

Tom Wesselmann, 1962

Tom Wesselmann was one of America’s most innovative Pop artists. A painter, printmaker and sculptor, his work is as American as the country and western music he sang and wrote.

Early Years and Education

Tom Wesselmann was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. He attended Hiram College and then transferred to the University of Cincinnati. His studies were interrupted in 1953, when he was drafted into the Army during the Korean War. He served stateside, and returned to the University, where he graduated, in 1956, with a BA in Psychology. Wesselman wanted to be a cartoonist and, to that end, attended the Art Academy of Cincinnati.

After graduating from the Art Academy, Wesselman moved to New York, where he attended Cooper Union, and all the plans he had for his future changed radically. “I was continuing my very kind of cocky way in my attempt to be a cartoonist,” he said, “going to Cooper Union to stall for time, again on the G.I. Bill. I’d taught myself to draw cartoons, and the art school I viewed as a completely separate phenomenon. It had nothing to do with cartooning or with me. It was just something I had to endure to get my G.I. Bill. What happened though was I fell in with the wrong crowd, with people who thought and had ideas.”

The ideas Wesselman was confronted with had to do with creating art and becoming a serious artist. It was also a time in his life when he was in a failing marriage and needed money to live on. While attending a landscape painting class at Cooper Union’s Green Camp in rural New Jersey,  he became convinced that he could become a serious artist.

Career and Family Life

Wesselmann taught at a public school in Brooklyn and then at the High School of Art and Design. He exhibited some small collages at the Judson Gallery, in the basement of the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, with Jim Dine and Marc Ratliff. In 1961, Wesselmann began painting a series of nudes, in which he incorporated American themes and colors. His work began to get increasing attention and was included in the New Realists exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1962, which helped to launch the careers of Wesselmann, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and other American artists.

In 1963, Wesselmann married Claire Selley, a student he had met at Cooper Union, who had been a friend and had modeled for him. The couple had two daughters and a son. In the 1980s he began to do laser cut steel drawings and sculptures. Wesselmann often worked on large, sometime shaped, canvasses, narrowing his focus from a complete form to just one aspect of the form, like the mouth. In the 1990s, Wesselmann painted nudes on canvas, but with a different, more painterly approach. Though he suffered from heart disease during the last years of his life, Wesselman continued to work.
He died in New York, of complications following heart surgery, in 2004.

Legacy

Tom Wesselmann’s work is included in the permanent collection of MoMA, the Smithsonian, the Whitney, Musee d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain, the Israel Museum, The Museum of Modern Art in Japan and other venues around the world. Wesselman published a biography in 1980, using the pseudonym, Slim Stealingworth. He composed over 400 country songs, including, I Love Doing Texas With You which was included on the Brokeback Mountain movie soundtrack.

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