Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Tom Wesselmann Finds a New Medium

“I’ve just had the best year of my life,” Tom Wesselmann said in a 1985 interview with The New York Times. “I always work in a kind of near ecstasy, anyway, but there’s really been something about the new work that grabbed me.”

Rewind two years earlier. Wesselmann has the idea to capture the spontaneity of his sketches, complete with false lines and errors, and realize them in the permanence of metal. The first works were made from hand-cut aluminum that were painted in colors. Wesselmann explained, “With the aluminum doodles, the idea was to take a small doodle and blow it up large, as if it had just been made on the wall.”

In 1984, Wesselmann embarked on a year-long journey with metalworks fabricator Alfred Lippincott to develop a technique that could cut steel with the precision that he needed. When the first laser-cut work arrived, he was elated. “I anticipated how exciting it would be for me to get a drawing back in steel. I could hold it in my hands. I could pick it up by the lines, off the paper. It was so exciting. It was like suddenly I was a whole new artist.”

With the invention of the Steel Drawings, Wesselmann began to focus more on drawing for the sake of drawing. He recalled, “I’d never approached anything on this basis before, where the scribble was the final product.” The drawings that would be transferred into steel were selected carefully. According to Wesselmann, they “had to have the right look and feel…they can’t be tampered with…they have to be drawn in one dash.”

What excited Wesselmann the most about these new works was that his intimate sketches could be magnified to a monumental size, yet somehow, could still maintain their free and spontaneous quality. Though technology enabled him to achieve this result, he was not a proponent of it. “I don’t like technology,” Wesselmann explained. “The laser pieces didn’t come from an interest in lasers or computers, but from an ideato make drawings in steel. I never miss a chance to run a computer down. But I’m sure glad we’ve got them, because they’re helping me a lot right now.”

Wesselmann’s Steel Drawings caused both excitement and confusion in the art world. After acquiring a piece in 1985, the Whitney Museum of American Art wrote to Wesselmann asking why he had labeled the work a drawing and not a sculpture. His response was that while he considered it a pure drawing, it was “an example of life not necessarily being as simple as one might wish.” He continued, “I trust that in the long run wisdom will prevail and what it is will not matter. What matters, of course, is it is beautiful, a vivid expression of a valid idea, presented in a specific form that really has never been seen before.”

 Image Credit: Tom Wesselmann (American, b.1931, d.2004), Monica Sitting With Mondrian (Variation #4), 1988. Enamel on cut-out steel; 61 x 41 1/2 in. Lent by Claire Wesselmann. © Estate of Tom Wesselmann/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, Photo Credit: Jeffrey Sturges.
 
 

Danielle St. Peter, formerly Danielle Stephens, is the master teacher for modern and contemporary art at the Denver Art Museum.