Tom Wesselmann was born in Cincinnati in 1931. He attended Hiram College and transferred to the University of Cincinnati to study psychology. In 1952, his education was interrupted when he was drafted into the Army during the Korean War. While in the army, he began creating cartoons. After his service, he returned to the University of Cincinnati and completed his psychology degree and then went to the Art Academy of Cincinnati to study drawing. He continued to draw cartoons and had his first strip published. At this stage, Tom Wesselmann knew he would pursue a career in art and moved to New York and enrolled at the Cooper Union Art School. In New York, he was exposed to inspiring artists, such as Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning. Wesselmann experimented with many styles of art. Early works were abstract expressionism and collage.
After graduating from the Cooper Union Art School, Wesselmann founded the Judson Gallery, along with fellow artists Marc Ratliff and Jim Dine. He also taught art in a Brooklyn school, and then at the High School of Art and Design. In 1961, Tom Wesselmann began his well known series ‘Great American Nudes’ and exhibited it in his first solo show in New York. The series was inspired by a dream and incorporated patriotic representational images, such as American landscapes and the founding fathers. He was offered shows at the Tanager Gallery and the Green Gallery. His work of the time was now being placed in the new genre of Pop Art.
Curator, Art Historian and Critic, Henry Geldzahler observed: “About a year and a half ago I saw the works of Wesselmann…, Warhol, Rosenquist and Lichtenstein in their studios. They were working independently, unaware of each other, but drawing on a common source of imagination. In the space of a year and a half they put on exhibitions, created a movement and we are now here discussing the matter in a conference. This is instant history of art, a history of art that became so aware of itself as to make a leap that went beyond art itself”.
Being described as a Pop Artist was not something Wesselmann agreed with and stated, “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”.
In 1962, he exhibited in the ‘New Realists’ show at the Sidney Janis Gallery. The same year he began experimenting with assemblages and started a new series called ‘Still Life’. The next series he worked on was ‘Bathtub Collages’ followed by ‘Bedroom Paintings’, ‘Seascapes’ and ‘Smokers’, which he continued until the early 1980s. In 1980, he published a treatise, under the pen-name Slim Stealingworth, examining his artistic development. In 1984, he started making steel and aluminum cut-out figures. In later years, his metal work became more abstract. In 1994 a comprehensive retrospective took place at the Kunsthalle in Tübingen.
By the mid 1990s, Tom Wesselmann’s health began to decline as a result of heart disease, although he continued work.
Wesselmann died in New York in 2004 following heart surgery. His work is part of the permanent collections of museums all over the world.