Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Tom Wesselmann Breaks from Abstraction

“The challenge for an artist is always to find your own way of doing something.” – Tom Wesselmann, Beyond Pop Art: A Tom Wesselmann Retrospective at the Denver Art Museum

We’ve all experienced it at one time or another. That feeling of envy you get when you see or hear something so wonderful, so inspiring that you wish YOU had been the creator. This is the moment that defined artist Tom Wesselmann is where his retrospective begins.

After creating a series of small collages inspired by the abstract expressionist movement, Wesselmann came to the conclusion that the work he loved was “already being done, and done far better than he could ever do.” He decided that he had to go back and start from absolute zero with his work, “to go back and start from the beginningor at a beginningor else quit."

Wesselmann elaborated on this artistic crisis in his 1980 Oral History Interview for the Archives of American Art, “I would go to the Met and look at [Willem de Kooning’s] Easter Monday and be torn to pieces because I was so angry that this man had done my painting before I could get to it. Of course, I was robbing him of all the genius of doing this thing. Of course it was his painting, not mine. After I was confronted with this fact…What do I do? I can’t build a career out of somebody else’s painting. With a flash of insight I realized that I had to throw out de Kooning and find my own ways of doing it. It saved my life, because for the first time I began to have something that was mine. It saved my life emotionally as well as artistically, because now I could make my own rules.”

And make his own rules he did. Wesselmann decided that the answer was to use “absolutely concrete literal elements to deal with and to be in complete control of them.” He then decided to tackle what he had always scorned as a studentfigurative subject matter. He settled on the traditional situations of paintingthe reclining nude, the still life, and landscapebut with a twist. In each one, he embedded a number of found objects, magazine cut-outs, and/or photomechanical reproductions (posters) from contemporary culture. In doing so, he became one of the leading artists of the pop art movement alongside Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Claes Oldenburg

Image Credit:Tom Wesselmann (American, b.1931, d.2004), Green Camp Pond, 1959. Pastel, paper, and staples on composition board; 31 3/4 x 23 3/4 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.