Marlene Dietrich, Hollywood
In Smoker, 1975 smoke wafts around the sultry pinks lips and manicured red fingernails in a sensual embrace evoking the glamour and style of Silver Screen Hollywood. It is imbued with nostalgia for a bygone era when men and women were always dressed in couture and cigarettes were the ultimate accessory.
The Smoker series were a breakthrough in Wesselmann's production. Initiated in 1967, these works were some of his earliest shaped canvases. In the mid-1970s, the period of the present work, he introduced yet another compositional innovation. Where previously there had only been lips and a cigarette, Wesselmann added the hand which greatly enhanced the complexity of this seminal series. Two of the most fetishized parts of the body interact to create a visual innuendo more poignant than even Wesselmann's celebrated Great American Nudes.
In fact, the Smoker paintings evolved directly from the Great American Nude paintings. They are a distillation of the earlier series' eroticism. Marco Livingston cites Great American Nude #53 as the specific predecessor to the Smokers when he writes, "the oversized mouth with lips parted, in seemingly lascivious anticipation, is a billboard advertisement for Royal Crown cola, showing a woman smiling with pleasure at the thought of having a refreshing drink, in their new context the imagined pleasure takes on a more purely sensual dimension. In retrospect, it looks like a foregone conclusion that some of Wesselmann's most notorious women, the shaped canvas Smokers, would end up as all mouth" (M. Livingston, "Telling It Like It Is," Tom Wesselmann, New York, 1996, p. 11). Wesselmann was so satisfied with his new subject that he almost completely abandoned doing Great American Nudes after 1968.
Like the great sex symbols of the Silver Screen, Smoker finds its allure not in an overt but instead a nuanced sexuality. It is a souvenir of a more glamorous time; when Wesselmann completed this masterwork, American culture, via the sexual revolution, had long since moved beyond that quaint era.