Wesselmann was born in Cincinnati in 1931. He began drawing cartoons when he was drafted out of college into the Army in 1952. He enrolled afterwards at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, and in 1956 was accepted at Cooper Union in New York. During his studies, an encounter with Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic at MoMA shifted his interest towards painting. It gave him what he called ‘a sensation of high visceral excitement in his stomach.’ He also admired the work of Willem de Kooning.
Wesselmann’s breakthrough came with his Great American Nude series, which he made between 1961 and 1973. Combining collage, assemblage and painting, they depicted nude women in bold interiors alongside objects like cigarettes, televisions and Coca-Cola bottles, as well as patriotic motifs such as the American flag. The women were sleek, graphic and stylised, symbolising a conflation of sex and consumerist desire.
Working in New York at the same time as Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein, Wesselmann was hailed as a leading figure in American Pop Art. While he shared these artists’ interest in popular culture, however, Wesselmann disliked the Pop label. He saw his own works as making aesthetic rather than critical use of his source material. With their billboard scale and vivid colour, his pictures aimed for the power of the Abstract Expressionist paintings he admired. His nudes took up the hedonistic legacy of Henri Matisse’s odalisques.
Wesselmann’s nudes evolved. From 1965, he began to isolate and enlarge individual parts of them with fetishistic focus. Among his most famous works are the Mouths and the related Smokers, which were inspired by a model taking a cigarette break. They have become sensual icons of the Pop era. Presented on large, shaped canvases, the gleaming red lips are powerful, seductive and formally audacious.
Wesselmann continued to innovate over the decades, while also revisiting his previous work. In his Bedroom Painting series, he combined aspects of the Great American Nudes with elements of seascape and still-life painting. He focused on details such as hands, feet or breasts. His Dropout works played with using parts of the body to create negative space. In the 1980s, he developed a new process to make drawings into reliefs of laser-cut metal.
With its celebration of sex, style, shape and colour, Wesselmann’s art has seen increasing interest since his death in 2004. Works from Mouths, Smokers and Great American Nude series have sold for millions of dollars at auction.