“The prime mission of my art, in the beginning, and continuing still, is to make figurative art as exciting as abstract art.”
Tom Wesselmann was in his early twenties when he taught himself to draw whilst doing his draft time in the army. His intention was to pursue a career as a cartoonist after he was demobbed.
With help of the GI Bill Wesselmann was able to attend New York’s Cooper Union School of Art and during his 3 years there he changed from cartooning to fine art, from drawing to painting. Although heavily influenced by de Kooning and Matisse Wesselmann was determined to forge his own course.
As he told the Smithsonian’s Oral History’s when I threw out de Kooning I tried to throw out every influence I was conscious of, including Matisse. So I wanted to find a way that in a sense was the opposite of it. De Kooning worked big; I'd work small; de Kooning -- also Dine and all the guys I knew worked sloppy; I'd work neat. I wasn't all that neat, but I was neat by comparison… They worked abstract; I'd work figurative . . . At the same time there are other things here, like I deliberately wanted to work figurative because it was the one mode that I so scorned . . . It was the only way to go. . . I had no point of view, and I was really approaching figurative art as a naive. . . I had no point of view about figurative art. I had never seen any, except Norman Rockwell. And that was kind of intriguing to start off that way.”
This approach to his work saw Wesselmann lumped into the Pop Art genre although his use of everyday objects was as an aesthetic object rather than a critique of their consumer status.
“I dislike labels in general and 'Pop' in particular, especially because it overemphasizes the material used. There does seem to be a tendency to use similar materials and images, but the different ways they are used denies any kind of group intention,” he has said.
In his mid-sixties Wesselmann chanced upon an abstract version of his figurative works.” I cut up this Mylar painting before throwing it away. These numerous small sections, now totally abstract, were interesting. When overlaid and moved around they had an irresistible appeal to my eye. I rather quickly laid out an abstract painting. Perhaps, I’d actually do it sometime. I even toyed with being another artist to see if the art world would welcome this artist more than me. Monica [my studio assistant] laid one cut section down, not purposely, atop a Matisse book. My overlap atop the abstract Matisse was a quite beautiful work. I resolved to follow this through thoroughly.”
For the next decade until his death in 2004, Wesselmann incorporated these abstract works, often made from cut out aluminum, with his figurative paintings. A process he has described as “going back to what I had desperately been aiming for in 1959.”
A retrospective exhibition of Wesselmann’s paintings is currently on show at New York’s Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery until the 28th of May.