When artist Alex Katz visited Tom Wesselmann’s small New York studio for the first time in 1961 he wasn’t sure what to expect. The two had known each other from a painting trip to Green Camp when Wesselmann was a second year student at Cooper Union. He was only then transitioning from being a cartoonist to a painter and now Katz had heard from art critic Henry Geldzahler that Wesselmann was doing collages.
A "Violent" First Show
Impressed by what he saw, Katz helped Wesselmann receive his first one-man show. He recalled, “I went down to his studio and he had just started his Great American Nude series, which I thought were sensational. So I went to the Tanager Gallery, where I was a member, and they all thought it was terrific. We made him a member and he got a show. A lot of people disliked it and a lot of people were impressed. It was a violent first show. It was really quite terrific. And that was the beginning of Tom Wesselmann.”
Art critic Irving Sandler described what it was like to view Wesselmann’s work for the first time, “I remember being far more shocked by the use of [Del Monte cans] than I was by the erotic character of the nude. Matisse had prepared me for the nudes; so had de Kooning. But I wasn’t prepared yet for that—because [he] just cut a Del Monte can and put it on the surface.”
Comparisons to Lichtenstein & Rosenquist
Wesselmann’s use of popular imagery in his work became a topic of conversation in the gallery. His work, specifically his choice of materials, was being compared to several other young artists working at the time. After having just broken free from his anxiety over de Kooning, he was unsettled. He explained, “I recall being at the Tanager Gallery when Ivan Karp was telling me about [Roy] Lichtenstein and [James] Rosenquist. They hadn’t shown yet, but he was telling me about their work and that I should see it because we really had something in common. I got uneasy feelings. I didn’t want to have anything in common with anybody at that point. I mean, my grip on whatever it was was fragile enough that I felt it had to be really something uniquely my own or maybe I wouldn’t have any grip on it.”
This became another defining moment in Wesselmann’s creative journey. He explained, “I wasn’t established within myself yet—I didn’t know what I wanted to do or at least which direction to take. After the show I began to make very concrete decisions about style, in a bigger sense.”
One Year Later
A year later, Wesselmann found himself at the center of the pop art craze. His second one-man show at the Green Gallery sold out and the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired Great American Nude #2. Wesselmann’s career was taking off, faster than anyone could have predicted.
Image Credit: Tom Wesselmann (American, b.1931, d.2004), Great American Nude #1, 1961. Mixed media and collage on board; 48 x 48 in. Lent by Claire Wesselmann. © Estate of Tom Wesselmann/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, Photo Credit: Jeffrey Sturges.