Tom Wesselmann was born in
Cincinnati, studied at Hiram College and then at the University
of Cincinnati, where he earned a degree in psychology in 1956.
After two years in the army, he attended the Art Academy of
Cincinnati and then went to New York to study at the Cooper
Union Art School. Although his earliest works leaned toward
abstract expressionism his style underwent a series of dramatic
changes and eventually led to his becoming an important exponent
of pop art.
He made Still Life #59, five panels that form a large, complex dimensional, freestanding painting: here too the elements are enlarged, and part of a telephone can be seen. A nail-polish bottle is tipped up on one side, and there is a vase of roses with a crumpled handkerchief next to it, and the framed portrait of a woman, actress Mary Tyler Moore, whom Wesselmann considered as the ideal prototype girlfriend. These are works in which he made more recognizable portraits, with a less anonymous feel. In Bedroom painting #12 he inserted a self-portrait. Still Life #60 appeared in 1974: the monumental outline, almost 26 feet (eight meters) long, of the sunglasses acts as a frame for the lipstick, nail polish and jewelry; a microcosm of contemporary femininity that Wesselmann took to the level of gigantism. His Smokers continued to change: he introduced the hand, with polished fingernails sparkling in the smoke. In 1973 he brought to an end the series devoted to the Great American Nude with "The Great American Nude #100.
In 1978 Wesselmann started work on a new series of Bedroom Paintings. In these works he revised the formal construction of the composition, which was now cut by a diagonal, with one entire section being taken up by a woman’s face in the very near foreground.
In 1980 Wesselmann published the monograph Tom Wesselmann, an autobiography written under the pseudonym Slim Stealingworth. His second daughter, Kate, was born; previous children were Jenny and Lane.
In 1983 Wesselmann was seized by the idea of doing a drawing in steel, as if the lines on paper could be lifted off and placed on a wall. Once in place the drawings appeared to be drawn directly on the wall. This idea preceded the available technology for lasers to mechanically cut metal with the accuracy Wesselmann needed. He had to invest in the development of a system that could accomplish this, but it took another year for that to be ready. The incorporation of negative space that had begun in the Drop-Out series was continued into a new medium and format. They started out as works in black and white, enabling him to redevelop the theme of the nude and its composition. Wesselmann took his idea further and decided to make them in color as well. As well as colored metal nudes, in 1984 he started working on rapid landscape sketches that were then enlarged and fabricated in aluminum.
Obliged by the use of metals to experiment with various techniques, Wesselmann cut works in aluminum by hand; for steel he researched and developed the first artistic use of laser-cut metal. Computerized imaging had not yet been developed.
In 1994 a comprehensive retrospective took place at the Kunsthalle in Tübingen.
His metal works continued to go through a constant metamorphosis: My Black Belt, 1990, a seventies subject, acquired a new vivacity that forcefully defined space in the new medium. The Drawing Society produced a video directed by Paul Cummings in which Wesselmann makes a portrait of a model and a work in aluminum.
“Since 1993 I’ve basically been an abstract painter. This is what happened: in 1984 I started making steel and aluminum cut-out figures... One day I got muddled up with the remnants and I was struck by the infinite variety of abstract possibilities. That was when I understood I was going back to what I had desperately been aiming for in 1959, and I started making abstract three-dimensional images in cut metal. I was happy and free to go back to what I wanted: but this time not on De Kooning’s terms but on mine". In this new abstract format Wesselmann preferred a random approach, and made compositions in which the metal cut-outs shapes resembled to painted gestural brushstrokes. His nudes on canvas of this period rework 1960s images; They : “...constitute an unexpected but highly satisfying nostalgic return to a youthful episode in the very midst of one of the most radical changes of style in Wesselmann’s career. Self-contained and complete in themselves, they seem more likely to stand alone rather than to lead to further reinterpretations of Sixties motifs. In other words they should not be taken as a sign that Wesselmann is embarking on an extended re-engagement with his classic Pop phase...”.In 1999 he made his final Smoker work, Smoker #1 (3-D), as a relief in aluminum.
Wesselmann died in New York on 17 December 2004. His choice of trivial motifs, thier monumentalisation, reduction to stereotypes, sexual embelematic as well as the use of bright colours made Wesselmann a co-founder of the American Pop-Art during the 1960s.
The years following Wesselmann’s death were marked by a renewed interest in his work. Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma (MACRO) exhibited a retrospective in 2005, accompanied by a comprehensive catalogue. The following year L&M Arts in New York held a major exhibition of works from the 1960s. Two galleries; Maxwell Davidson and Yvon Lambert, jointly showed the Drop-Out series in New York in 2007. This coincided with the release of a new monograph on the artist, written by John Wilmerding and published by Rizzoli; Tom Wesselmann, His Voice and Vision. Another show, in 2010 by Maxwell Davidson, Tom Wesselmann: Plastic Works, was the first ever survey of Wesselmann’s work in formed plastic. 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, at Nova Southeastern University, and The Kreeger Museum in Washington, DC. A lifetime retrospective, to travel in North America, is currently being finalized.