Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more
Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004)

Still Life #5 ½

Details
Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004)
Still Life #5 ½
signed twice, titled and dated twice 'SL 5 ½ Wesselmann 62' (on the reverse)
enamel, Liquitex, lace, printed paper and printed cardboard collage on Masonite
30 x 30 in. (76.2 x 76.2 cm.)
Executed in 1962.
Provenance
Galerie Ileana Sonnabend, Paris
Private collection, 1965
Galerie Springer, Berlin
Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles
Stefan Edlis & Gael Neeson, Chicago
Private collection, United States
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, London, 28 February 2008, lot 196
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Exhibited
L’Aquila, Castello Cinquecentesco, Aspetti dell’arte contemporanea: rassegna internazionale architettura, pittura, scultura, graffica 1944-1963, July-October 1963, 151, no. 278 (illustrated).
Paris, Galerie Ileana Sonnabend, Pop Art Américaine, January 1964.
Stockholm, Moderna Museet; Humlebaek, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, American Pop Art, February-July 1964, pp. 11 and 101, no. 102 (Stockholm, illustrated); no. 102 (Humlebaek); no. 81 (Amsterdam).
Winnipeg Art Gallery, OK America, February-March 1969, no. 28.
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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan

Lot Essay

Coming from one of the artist’s most renowned series, Still Life, 1962 is a striking example of Tom Wesselmann’s uncanny ability to capture the “American Life” through complex constructions of ubiquitous billboard and magazine advertisements in the post-war Pop Art era. During the 1960s, Wesselmann began his series of still life tableaux that artfully epitomized the defining characteristics of Pop Art: bright colors, clean, flat images, and tokens of mass media and consumer culture. In order to replicate his ideal American home, Wesselmann searched high and low for pictorial sources as well as unconventional artistic materials. He used commercial advertising graphics in a direct way by juxtaposing painted passages with collaged elements within a clean, flat and static space.

In the present work, Wesselmann invites viewers into the American interior, a sanctuary of consumerism. His invitation to consume, to take pleasure in the act of eating, drinking and smoking, is made more alluring through the use of omnipresent commercial labels taken from actual packages against the patriotic background of red and blue. Potent symbols of domesticity, like the magazine clipping of a loving mother and child, or the elegantly displayed smoked ham, recognized as a staple of an “All-American” dinner, beckon nostalgia while elevating the familiar and the mundane. Counter to the cool, detached, ironic stance that was the norm in much Pop Art, Still Life also adds a sense of mystery and voyeurism that engages the viewer directly. Behind this table of plentitude, visual and otherwise, the partially visible nude is rendered as merely a simplified silhouette, intentionally lacking distinguishing individual features that would link the figure with the viewer. Close yet out-of-reach, the image evokes the mingled excitement and frustration of mass media advertising’s tantalizing subjects. 

The imagery in Wesselmann's Still Life is composed of a combination of painted images, collage elements and "ready-made" images cut from contemporary magazine advertisements, circulars, or posters. Wesselmann sampled his surrounding, everyday reality and reassembled the selected fragments in a way that creates an intense portrait, not of pears and Christmas ham, but rather of the prevailing consumerist popular culture that characterized middleclass life in post-war America. This juxtaposition of collaged and painted imagery was critical to Wesselmann's project: 'If there was any single aspect of my work that excited me, it was the possibility - not just the differences between what they were, but the aura each had with it. They each had such a fulfilled reality; the reverberations seemed a way of making the picture more intense. A painted pack of cigarettes next to a painted apple wasn't enough for me. They were both the same kind of thing. But if one is from a cigarette ad and the other a painted apple, they are two different realities and they trade on each other; lots of things - bright colors, the qualities of materials, images from art history or advertising - trade on each other. This kind of relationship helps establish a momentum throughout the picture - all the elements are in some way very intense. Therefore throughout the picture - all the elements compete with each other. At first glance, my pictures seem well behaved, as if - that is a still life, O.K. But these things have such crazy give-and-take that I feel they get really very wild' (T. Wesselmann, interview with G. Swenson, in ARTnews, 1964, p. 44).

Wesselmann was one of a select group of innovators who used techniques such as collage and assemblage to help create a vibrant new style of art to match the exuberant decade of the 1960s in which he came of age as an artist. Wesselmann’s work was included in the influential 1962 “New Realists” show at the Sidney Janis Gallery, one of the first gallery exhibitions of Pop Art and one that included some of the figures like Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg who, as did Wesselmann, brought a Pop sensibility to the still life genre.

The Still Lifes, although they visually read as sunny and cheerful, often suggest darker undertones, with ideas of unease over material excess and of the unmatched power of the commercial. Wesselmann denied his work ever being a social critique, however. Instead, he wanted to portray everyday items for their visual appeal. “Along with Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist and Jim Dine, Mr. Wesselmann belonged to a generation of artists who gave American art and culture a new sense of itself. They found inspiration, source materials and even working methods…in advertising, movies, food labels, household appliances, newspaper front pages and in commercial art techniques like silkscreen, Benday dots and billboard painting. The changes they wrought continue to reverberate through contemporary art and life” (R. Smith, “Tom Wesselmann, 73, Pop Artist Known for Sleek Nudes, Is Dead” New York Times, December 20, 2004).

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