Behind the Scenes at the DAM

5 Things You Can Learn from Claire Wesselmann

On Wednesday, July 9, artist Tom Wesselmann's widow, Claire, will be in conversation with Denver Art Museum master teacher for modern and contemporary art Danielle Stephens. Studio manager of the Tom Wesselmann estate, Jeffrey Sturges, will join them for a discussion about Tom Wesselmann and the retrospective of his work that opens at the DAM on July 13.

Claire, who met Tom when they were both art students at the Cooper Union in New York, in the 1950s, has a wealth of knowledge about Tom and his career. Among the things we might learn from her are:

  1. How she met Tom. We know that Tom Wesselmann and Claire Selley were both art students at the Cooper Union in New York in the 1950s, but how they became acquainted and fell in love is a chapter of Tom's biography that's not often told. 
  2. What it was like to model for Tom Wesselmann. The artist remains notorious for his focus on the female figure, and Claire's was one that he painted from life repeatedly. In fact, she posed for several of the works that will be on view at the DAM this summer, such as several of the Great American Nudes and Claire's Thigh (2003).
  3. The significance of drawing in Wesselmann's practice. Wesselmann is not known as draughtsman, but he drew numerous studies for nearly all of his works—big and small, two- and three-dimensional. Eventually, Wesselmann extrapolated the drawn mark into three dimensions, and on a large scale, using molded plastic and steel.
  4. Why Wesselmann was apparently obsessed with the female nude. Many art historians, critics, and viewers have accused Wesselmann of objectifying women in his work. As one of the women who modeled for Wesselmann, and his wife and friend, Claire has unique insight into the artist's frequent depiction of the female form. 
  5. The less-than-straight path Tom took to pop. Before beginning to make work that we now classify as pop, Wesselmann studied psychology at the University of Cincinnati, served in the US Army, tried his hand at cartooning, and took a stab at making abstract expressionist work. 

Zoe Larkins is the curatorial assistant for contemporary art at the DAM. She's excited for Beyond Pop Art: A Tom Wesselmann Retrospective to open on July 13. She says you shouldn't miss the three-dimensional maquettes that Wesselmann made as studies for his large sculptural works that will be in the show.