Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Tom Wesselmann is Inspired by Chance

In 1985 Tom Wesselmann wrote in his journal that “The prime mission of my art, in the beginning, and continuing still, is to make figurative art as exciting as abstract art. I think I have succeeded, but there is still a lot further to go.”

It had been over 25 years since Wesselmann made the transition from the abstract to the figurative, but it remained a driving force in his work. What he didn’t know at the time was that he was about to find his way back to abstraction. He recalled, “It came about quite by chance. I started playing around with [scraps of Mylar] and was immediately taken with the surprising images that seemed endless, and it engaged my interest instantly.”

In a journal entry from 1993 he elaborated on the impact of this chance discovery. He wrote, “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.”

From this moment until his death in 2004, Wesselmann created large-scale gestural abstractions made from cut-out aluminum. He was very pleased to be back where he wanted to be in 1959, but now on his own terms. “In my early days, I was so envious of [Willem] de Kooning that I almost stopped being a painter.” Wesselmann said in a 1994 interview. “I realized, of course, that I had to find my own way. It was interesting now to find out that, although I had been working away from de Kooning in a straight line all these years, it turns out in retrospect to be a kind of long arc, which became a circle.”

This did not mean, however, that Wesselmann abandoned figurative subject matter altogether. While waiting for the fabrication of these large abstract pieces, he began to paint once again on canvas. In his final series, the Sunset Nudes, he skillfully united representation and abstraction together in a single compositiona fitting resolution that was 40 years in the making.

Wesselmann once said that “Growth is the goal, and that goal is never completeart must be in constant change.” This belief is what grounded him in his artistic practice. It meant never settling for what was working, but to push forward with new ideas that would give form to his own personal discoveries of what was beautiful and exciting to him. How perfect that this process, this growth, landed him right back where he wanted to be when he first started. Growth was the goal and now somehow it feels complete.

 

Image Credit: Tom Wesselmann (American, b.1931, d.2004), Screen Star, 1999-2003. Oil on cut-out aluminum; 109 x 139 x 43 in. Lent by Claire Wesselmann. © Estate of Tom Wesselmann/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, Photo Credit: Jeffrey Sturges.

Danielle Stephens is the master teacher for modern and contemporary art at the Denver Art Museum. She has been with the DAM since June 2013.